Author Leslie Marmon Silko (1948– )
Classification Elegy
Fiction F
First Published 1974
Locale Near Cebolleta, New Mexico, on the Navajo reservation
Time of Plot The 1970’s

Principal characters:

AYAH, an old Navajo woman
CHATO, her husband
THE BARTENDER AND PATRONS, who can be found in Azzie’s Bar

The Story

Ayah sits under a cottonwood watching snow fall and recalling events in her past. The sound of the wind reminds her of the songs of the holy people, the Yeibechei, and the snow is like the tufts of wool that her mother and grandmother wove when she was a little girl. Sitting under an army blanket, a gift from her eldest son, Jimmie, she remembers his birth in a stone hogan. Her mind moves to the day a representative from the government came to the ranch where she and Chato, her husband, were living to tell them about Jimmie’s death in combat. The messenger had not understood their wish not to have the body returned. She had not cried at the time but had mourned later, when Chato’s horse fell on him, breaking his leg, and the rancher for whom they worked refused to pay Chato again until he could work. She remembers grieving, too, for this eldest son after the two youngest surviving children, Danny and Ella, were taken away from her, evidently because the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) authorities feared that the children might contract tuberculosis. She had tried to foil the agents, hiding all day with the children until the government car left. Yet more officials and BIA police had arrived the next day and taken the children: Ayah had unwittingly signed her permission. She remembers resenting Chato for many years, punishing him by keeping her distance, because he had taught her the skill that lost her the children. She realizes that she and Chato are really strangers to each other.

Ayah begins walking toward Azzie’s Bar, where Chato usually spends most of their monthly welfare check. She plods slowly through the drifting snow, thinking of him as a stranger. As she enters the bar, she feels the fearful, hostile stares of the men inside. She remembers brief visits from Danny and Ella, and how the children gradually became estranged from her, until they saw her with the eyes of strangers and could no longer speak to her in Navajo.

Chato is not in the bar, and Ayah continues her search outside. She intends to take him to the adobe barn where they sleep when they come to the village of Cebolleta; afterward they will return to the old hogan. They will tend the few sheep left and their drought-dried garden. After being displaced by the rancher when Chato was no longer able to ride, and after five years of drought, they have finally been reduced to depending on monthly welfare checks.

Ayah catches up with Chato walking along the pavement, and together they start walking out of town. She thinks about how he is becoming forgetful, calling her by her sister’s name, trying to go back to the ranch to work. She suggests that they rest in the shelter of some boulders, and she pulls the blanket around both of them. As they sit there, the storm passes and the sky clears. Ayah feels the crystal air begin to freeze. She resolves to let Chato sleep and tucks the blanket around him. Sitting with him, she feels again intense love for her children. She begins to sing a lullaby that begins by telling the baby that "the earth is your mother, she holds you. The sky is your father, he protects you...."

Themes and Meanings

Like elegiac poems, "Lullaby" depicts the process of coming to terms with death and loss. Ayah has much to grieve: the death of her eldest son in an incomprehensible and distant war; the deaths in infancy of other children; the forced removal and then deliberate alienation of her two remaining children; the long estrangement from her husband, Chato.

Intertwined with these human deaths is the great loss of heritage, culture, and way of life. There will be no children and grandchildren to teach and nurture as Ayah had been educated and cared for by her mother and grandmother. Art, religion, language, natural history—all is being lost. Even the sacred compact with the earth seems broken in the persistent drought. Where once the land had produced all that the people needed—wool and bright dyes for strong, waterproof blankets, leather for leggings and shoes, meat hung on the rafters to dry—Ayah and Chato now find themselves reduced to the dull Army blanket, boots with holes in them, and a meager welfare check that buys only dead flour and tinned peaches.

The harshness and emptiness of present life is reflected in the human society of strangers surrounding the Navajos. After Jimmy dies, the government can offer nothing for her grief but his corpse. Clinical efficiency rather than feeling or tradition rules in the white world into which Danny and Ella disappear. Fear and hostility similarly characterize the bartender and his patrons, who tolerate Chato only insofar as he is like them—speaking their language. His former employer tolerates Chato only so long as the man can be exploited; when Chato can no longer work, he is discarded like a broken machine.

Ayah makes her peace with loss by removing herself, as far as possible, from this world of hostile strangers and returning to the old life. Living in the house of her mother and grandmother with her husband to tend her flocks, she carries on the matrilineal tradition, though she will be the last of her line to do so. More than a physical return, however, is her spiritual return in thought, as on this snowy journey she relives her losses.

The story depicts her realizing those stages of grief recognized by psychologists: denial, of Jimmie’s death ("It wasn’t like Jimmie died. He just never came back"); anger, at herself and at Chato for being duped into betraying herself and her children; despair, in the long years of numbing depression and estrangement from Chato and the lost children; and finally, reconciliation and peace.

Reconciliation is bound up with memories of the past as well, and these recollections unite her spiritually with the natural world. The snow recalls the weaving and dying that she watched as a child, and she is then drawn to remembrances of childbirth. By the end of the story, those recollections come together in the aching love for her children, and in the words of the lullaby, which tell the child that all the universe is her family and she is related as child and sister to the entire natural world.

Style and Technique

The mode of the story is lyrical. There is only one sentence of direct discourse, and the story’s movement follows Ayah’s consciousness through association of images as she moves forward in her journey to find Chato while drifting back in thought to earlier days.

The story’s imagery relates directly to Navajo traditions and culture. The Yeibechei are spiritual beings, called "holy people." They are powerful individuals who inhabit sacred mountains, springs, and other holy sites, and who are called upon in ceremonies, especially rituals for healing the sick or injured. A Yeibechei song is a sacred song, a part of such a healing ritual, and when Ayah hears the wind singing such a song, it signifies that her story may be understood as a healing ritual. The lullaby at the end of the story echoes the form of many healing songs in its structure of verse and repetition as well as in imagery of earth mother and sky father, rainbow sister and wind brother. Ayah’s elegy concludes with a return to the healing song and a reconciliation on many levels.

Concepts of return and circularity also recur in Navajo thought and iconography. The hogan is a roughly circular dwelling, constructed as a microcosm of the round earth. Pathways and motion are also important. The ideal life is conceived as a journey along the correct, fruitful, beautiful road, often pictured as a rainbow, which will take the individual back to the original—that is, the perfect—harmonious balance with the universe.

As she follows her path in search of Chato, to bring the two of them back to their earliest and final home, Ayah twice makes inward observations about her and Chato’s boots, first comparing her worn rubbers to the beautiful elk and buckskin leggings and moccasins that the people formerly had, then chuckling inwardly at Chato’s worn and sock-stuffed boots "like little animals." Animals also figure significantly in Navajo thought and iconography. The comparison of Ayah to a spider is ironic, for while the men at the bar feel contempt for the creature, the spider, often portrayed as Grandmother Spider, is a revered figure of wisdom for the peoples of the Southwest. Life with animals—sheep, goats, horses, and cattle—had sustained the traditional way of life, yet the natural world can be as harsh as the human one: The hawk circling over Ayah and her children as they hide parallels the government authorities who will return inexorably to take the children away. Animals, like the Yeibechei, are neither good nor evil but are terrible in their power: At the end of the story, Ayah sees the clouds as horses in the sky, figures of tremendous beauty and power, bringing strength and death at once.