Large mixed-breed dogs roam through the crowds of people. There are almost as many paw prints as shoe prints in the frozen-mud ground. Beyond us are the sand-colored buildings that have stood here for almost a millennium. Beyond them are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
In the last hour of sunlight at Taos Pueblo, white tourists in jeans and tennis shoes or UGG boots meander across the grounds, munching fry bread and sipping hot chocolate and coffee to keep warm. We may be in New Mexico, whose name conjures scorching desert imagery, but the temperature is below thirty degrees (a blizzard ravaged the state days ago) and will only drop once the sun disappears. That's when the action will begin.
The dogs are all collarless and mild-mannered and seem to know where they're going, making their way with a purpose from one end of the pueblo to the other. They don't bother the hordes of tourists, but are friendly if approached. A big long-haired yellow one melts onto the ground and splays on his back as I pet him and scratch his belly. I see more than one visitor toss a piece of fry bread to the dogs and wonder if their owners would mind or not. Maybe these dogs don't have individual owners but are cared for collectively.
My husband and I feel silly wearing semi-formal attire here, in this sea of denim and athletic shoes. We dressed up partly because we're going to a nice restaurant for Christmas dinner afterward and because this is the closest to a religious service we will attend this season. He's Jewish but attends Catholic mass with me on Christmas and Easter.
Things are different this year. Our home is a transitory one, a hotel room on an Air Force base in southern New Mexico where he's stationed for a few months of training. Instead of traveling to Ohio to see our families for Christmas, we opted to forgo the layovers, weather delays, and harried holiday travelers to explore more of this unfamiliar state.
I see close to fifty bonfire wood stacks and hope they'll be lit soon as I curl my toes so that I can feel them again. Arranged in Jenga-like configurations, they all vary in size, with some below my knees and the two largest, at the center of the grounds, over twenty feet tall. I think about how much more height the flames will add.
We drift in and out of the ground-level rooms throughout the pueblo. All are dark and cold, but some have space heaters or kiva fireplaces. The residents display their homemade wares for sale on textile-covered tables and stone-carved shelves. Eager shoppers peruse the turquoise necklaces, feather-shaped earrings, rawhide drums, dream catchers, Christmas tree ornaments, and non-lethal tomahawks. Everyone wants some unique souvenir to show from their trip.
I am no exception. I see an ornament dangling from a wood peg in one of the shops. It's a spherical, hollow work of pottery depicting the pueblo in warm shades of paint. I take it up to the young man at the makeshift register.
"This is my mother's shop," he says, bubble-wrapping my purchase. "She makes all of the pottery in here. This is her most popular design."
He slips her card into my brown bag. I look at it outside. The store's name is The Pueblo Runner. Underneath her name is written, in quotes, "Flower Basket."
I know this must be a good day for the Puebloan people's sales, but aside from that, do they like having us here? This is their home.
Military moves have left my own sense of home far from solidified, especially lately. Most of me revels in being one half of a rootless, wandering duo, but I marvel at what it must be like to have one's entire personal and familial history, spanning hundreds of years, contained in one fixed dwelling—even if it is overrun by outsiders at times.
One by one, the firewood stacks begin to light up. The hundreds of people migrate to and huddle around the first flames, then spread into smaller groups as more are ignited. We manage to find first-row space near a medium-sized fire. In the center of the stack, as in all the others, is a small, dark green bouquet of herbs. Sage maybe, but I'm unsure. I've never grown anything. Its scent, sweet and clean, is warm in my nostrils as it burns and fills the air.
The flame grows fast. I feel it too much on my face and not enough on my feet. My brightened cheeks feel like roasting marshmallows. I'm also concerned about the proximity of the baby in the stroller beside me to the bonfire. Her mother stands behind, talking to a friend or sister. I see the orange flames reflected in the baby's eyes. It's entranced her, like a magic spell.
The two biggest wood stacks are lit from the top, requiring ladders. It takes a while for the fire to crawl to the bottoms, but once it does they are colossal, filling the sky, orange against black, miniaturizing us all. Clouds of smoke swell into gray towers. The winds pick up and move the flames laterally, chasing the warmth-seekers back a few steps.
A few minutes after five, the church bells start to peal. A blast of gunfire cuts through. People gasp and turn their attention to the bright San Geronimo Chapel where a line of celebrants has appeared. Two men at the front carry torches. The focal point is the almost life-size statue of the Virgin Mary, dressed in white, carried beneath a white canopy. It reminds me of the chuppah at our wedding, with its four posts and dipping fabric in the center. Others in the procession carry drums that they pound in unhurried unison. It's too dark to see their faces. They move as one.
Though my husband and I fancy ourselves above all the dogma, couples like us are called interfaith. This ritual could be dubbed the same, this blend of ancient Native American spirituality and traditional Hispanic Catholicism.
Low chanting radiates from the marchers as they process in slow motion, lifting the statue high above. The guns fire every minute or so, with the number of tourists who jump and inhale decreasing with each boom. They punctuate the constant sound of the drum thumps, church bells, and chanting. Drums, bells, chanting…fires crackling… drums, bells, chanting…gunshot. I'm normally jumpy at sudden noises but somehow calm each time the blanks sound.
When the procession is over and the leaders disappear into the chapel again, half the crowd leaves. The other half dwindles at the same pace as the fires. Few speak. What scarce words are spoken come out in hushed tones. We stay as long as we can stand the cold, and then it's time to leave. We're guests here, after all.
The next day, Christmas morning, my husband wraps his arms around me and buries his nose in my hair. He tells me with satisfaction that it still bears the fragrance of the herb burned in the fires.
About the Author
Caroline Horwitz has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Chatham University. Her work has appeared in Animal, Lowestoft Chronicle, The Summerset Review, and Nevada Magazine, among others. She lives in Las Vegas with her husband and son.