October 25, 2019 | Narrative
warnings of the dark
late night adventures on the rez
The dogs at my aunt’s house always started barking around 3 a.m. I’d pull the window curtains shut and warn my younger siblings to avoid looking out at night. You never know who might be staring back.
As an adult, I still follow a series of similar rules. These lessons, rooted in cultural beliefs and understandings, continue to live within me. Most Diné youth from the rez know not to mess with certain traditions. But every now and then, overcome with an irrational desire for recklessness, a friend and I will take it upon ourselves to challenge tradition.
“Let’s take the back roads.”
I shook my head.
“Come on!” Mykel pleaded.
He curled his lip. “You scared?”
I rolled my eyes. “No.”
There’s a sense of finality in the onslaught of black after a vivid sunset. Growing up, I reveled in the presence of the falling sun, watching as bright pinks and oranges smeared across the sky. Though the sunsets offered beauty, they also came with stark warnings for children.
My cousins, siblings, and I all learned to abide by these rules. You can watch the sunset, but beware of the darkness that comes afterward. When we were between the ages of seven and eleven, my shímasaní, or maternal grandmother, always made sure we were indoors as soon as the stars began to dot the sky. Stories of wandering night-beings that lured little children with little feet like ours into the dark kept us behind closed windows. These shape-shifters prefer the form of animals over two-legged humans, and we were taught to never say their actual names. In doing so, we would be calling their presence, calling bad omens. The term yanni became their universal name. But even speaking this name into existence, especially from deep within the rez, could have horrifying consequences. My cousins, siblings, and I knew this. So when our shímasaní hushed our rowdy behavior with warnings of four-legged creatures that would steal us away into their caves, we’d lock eyes before returning silently to bed, cuddling close on our shared mattress for security.
Only on nights designated for prayer and celebration were we allowed outside on our own. But even then, adults kept a watchful eye, counting on the dogs to provide salient alerts. Our young ages kept us naive but cautious. We knew the phrase: Watch out for the “things that go bump in the night.”
Mykel nudged my arm. “Let’s spray paint that sign.” He gestured vaguely to the stop sign from the driver’s seat.
“I’m not getting out of the truck.” I eyed the pitch-black stretch of farmland, growing anxious.
“Come on!” Mykel tugged at my sleeve.
I slapped his hand away. “How do you even spray paint?”
“I’ll show you.”
Ironically, though my aunts and shímasaní were adamant in their decision to keep us younguns within four walls during the night, they had no problem with sending us to the outhouse at 2 a.m. if the bathroom in the house wasn’t an option. Occasionally, one of my cousins would walk into the bathroom and emerge five minutes later declaring that the toilet wouldn’t flush. Our cheii, or maternal grandfather, would follow to inspect the situation, then return, puffing an irritated sigh, and share the news—the water had been shut off. All of my siblings and cousins would groan. Some months my shímasaní and aunt couldn’t pay the water bill. We all knew this meant the outhouse was again open for business. We hated it.
During the day, the outhouse was manageable. Rancid, gross, and muggy, but nonetheless manageable. All of my cousins and siblings agreed: better a day outhouse visit than a night outhouse visit. But visiting the outhouse at night, no matter your preparation against it, was inevitable—especially for elementary school students with weak bladders.
You don’t need the experience of visiting an outhouse late at night to understand the sinking-pit-in-your-stomach reaction I’m describing. You’ve most likely felt it whenever you’ve had to enter a dark room because the light switch was far away from the door, or walked outside to feed the dog only to find that the porch light needed replacing, or braved the basement late at night because you left your cell phone charger plugged into the outlet down there. We all have childhood fears centered around similar experiences. Places tied to memories of dread and panic. Landscapes and stories that haunt our dreams, turning a simple set of basement stairs into a nightmare. The fear of what exists in the unknown constantly creeping at the back of our minds, breathing down our necks. Mine just happens to include an outhouse.
“You hear that?”
Mykel shook his head. “Shut up.”
I struggled to remain serious. “You see that?” I pointed to a dip in the road.
I nearly choked laughing.
At the age of twenty, I now understand what my shímasaní was protecting us from. I now know what exists out there, what wanders the mesas surrounding our farmland. When I was younger, I knew there were things that simply weren’t right. People who went evil, becoming beings that took shelter under the night’s blanket. No one liked to talk about it, but yannis once had human origins. Their minds and spirits became one with the evil that can exist within spiritual power, their stories a mixture of tragedy and horror.
Though my friend Mykel and I joke about seeing a night-being running alongside the road or wandering through the cornfields, we know when to be serious and when to avoid crossing lines that should never be crossed. Reader, you might consider the stories I’ve shared as simply that—stories. And you’re free to do so. But I believe there are things in this world that exist despite being inexplicable. Whether those things live in your closet or hide under your bed or are spotted along the highway at night, I suggest you keep my shímasaní’s words in mind: Don’t seek out what you know you can never understand.
My shímasaní is a wise woman. I know I should listen to her more often. But every now and then, I swallow cultural fears for the sake of friendship. And that’s how Mykel and I found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, clutching our iPhones and pointing out shadows in the distance, pretending the quavering in our voices is from laughter—which it is. It’s just also laced with something resembling unease.
“Why are we doing this again?” I eyed my reflection in the window, then looked down at my phone in my lap. No service. Not surprising, but also not comforting.
“Because it’s fun.” His tone was nonchalant. I could almost believe he did this regularly on his own, without friends.
I turned to look at him, smiling. “And if we die?”
Mykel just shrugged.
“Dude, I gotta get home.” I checked the time—2:43 a.m.
“I knew it.” He glanced at me. “You’re scared.”
I shook my head. “And you’re not?”
Mykel just shrugged again. “Just getting our spooks.”