This is a short story about Nina, a young Diné transwoman abandoned by her family at a young age. Her community shamed her for being trans, yet her grandmother, who fondly calls her ‘my little raincloud’, loves her unconditionally and reminds her of the power she has. Will she use it to end a decade-old drought?
CW: Death. Transphobia. Abandonment.
“Only women can bring water.”
That’s what the medicine man said in our class discussion on elemental manipulation through ceremony. The professor continued, expanding upon the guest speaker’s words.
“Manifesting water is also most potent in the clans that are closely affiliated with tó (water) too. The most well-known clan family who could easily do this was the Tábááhá. Yet, other clans could achieve some level of it. For example, Reneigh, who is born for Tó’dích’íinii (Bitter Water Clan) theoretically can manifest rain and because she is a woman, that makes the odds in her favor.”
“Wait. Professor Thomas, I have a question. Nina is born for Tábaahá (Water Edge Clan), and he says he is a woman. Will he be able to?” The person who asked emphasized each he. From the slight edge in her words, I could tell that she was staring straight at me as she asked her question.
I felt a pit in my stomach forming. A part of me wanted to know and another part of me didn’t.
“Uhhh. Well…since Nina is not a normal woman, he…I mean she, won’t be able to according to our guest speaker. Um…are there any other questions?” The room was silent, and the professor waited a few more seconds. “Ok, that is it for today. I shall see all of you tomorrow.”
Chairs screeched and murmurs erupted as everyone started packing their bags and people began leaving the classroom.
“Hear that Nina, only NORMAL woman can call forth the rain. Not some boy pretending.” The girl who asked the question yelled as she walked out the door.
God, I hate Koli. If only I could just…
“Hey, Nina. Are you okay?” I turned to the soft voice asking me. It was Tsia, the only close friend I have in this entire forsaken school.
“I don’t know, Tsia.” Tsia nodded and held out her arms. I smiled and returned the hug.
“They don’t know what you are capable of, Nina. Remember what grandmother calls you?” I nodded. Tsia picked up her stitched handbag and we started walking out the classroom.
“Will you be coming over today? I need help with today’s assignment. I’m having trouble with this one prayer. My…” Before she could finish her sentence. There was a slight tremor we both felt, and I pushed her aside to block whatever was coming as we stepped outside the door.
It was pouring.
“Look, everyone. Under all that makeup, you can finally see who Nina is – a boy in a dress.” Everyone in the hallway started laughing and some of them started taking out their phones to take photos and probably some videos.
I looked up and noticed a busted pipe. The water tasted bitter. Koli was standing next to Reneigh and two other friends, Dolly and Nima. Dolly and Nima were holding up their phones and laughing. Reneigh pursed her lips, and I heard a soft whistling sound from her. The bitter water stopped, but the damage was already done.
My clothes were drenched, my makeup smeared, and my hair a mess. Everyone continued laughing, and I was trying to hold back the emotions I was feeling; anger, sadness, and hurt. For a moment, all I heard and felt was my heart beating. Tsia grabbed my hand, but I pulled away and ran.
I needed to get out of here. I hate it here. I hate these people. I hate this community.
This wasn’t the first time Koli and her friends publicly attacked me. Every time we learned something new in Professor Thomas’s class, they always tested out the ceremonies. I just happened to be their favorite guinea pig. First, it started with convincing animals to poop on me. Then, as we advanced through each of the ceremonies and lessons, their attacks became more and more elaborate. Last week, we learned about the earth and shifting the minerals into something else. For them, that was making sure I tripped in a puddle of mud.
Koli and each of her friends were born from one of the original clans. The ones who Changing Woman created and gave gifts too. Each of their parents were on the council and each of them still have the gifts that Changing Woman gave them as a symbol of their status and power they wield. Koli was the leader of the group, and so was her mother. She was born for Kinyaa’áanii (The Towering House Clan), Reneigh was born for Tó’dích’íinii (Bitter Water Clan), Dolly was born for Honághááhnii (One Walks Around You Clan), and Nima was born for Hashtł’íshnii (Mud People Clan).
All of them each had an affinity based on their clans, but together they were stronger. None of them though could compare to what grandmother could do. She was the one person in our community that everyone revered and fear and the one person in the world who loves me unconditionally.
“My little raincloud, what happened?” I hugged my grandmother hiding my tears in the folds of her sunflower print tiered skirt. My clothes ruined because of the busted pipe and the two-mile run from my school to grandmother’s house; a small hogan away from the community. Grandmother said she needed to be away from the community, but I felt it had to do something with me.
I remembered visiting her often when I was younger. She used to live in the bigger and more decorative hogans that Koli and her parents do now, but after grandmother stepped down as head of the council, she decided she needed a change of scenery. So, she moved, and the council voted Koli’s mom, Kina, the matriarch of the Kinyaa’áanii to lead the community. No one really knows why grandmother stepped down and she never told me. No matter how many times I asked.
“They did it again, grandmother. They used Changing Woman’s gifts against me.”
“Oh shiyazhí, what happened?” She rubbed my back and held me. I wiped away my snots with the back of my hand and took a deep breath. I inhaled hints of cedar and lavender. Grandmother always smelled like she finished a ceremony, but I knew she stopped practicing. Calling upon the ancestors took too much out of her now.
In the community, there are whispers of how powerful grandmother use to be. She is the only one able to visit the spirit world whenever she wanted and could talk to the Holy People. But what made her most unique was her ability to see beyond and manipulate reality in unknown ways. No one else in the community had her gifts. It is because of her that our community has survived and thrived, especially when the white monsters came through and killed many of our ancestors. She brought back the teachings that so many have forgotten. Yet, to me, she is the only relative I have left who did not abandon me.
I told her what happened.
“Yadilah! Women are not the only ones who could bring water. The lies. What are the professors at the school of yours teaching?” She shook her head. “And I cannot believe those ungrateful brats are using Changing Woman’s gifts on you.”
“But, grandmother, that is what the medicine man and Professor Thomas said.” She pursed her lips and sighed.
“I have a story for you, my little raincloud. But, let’s get you a change of clothes and clean you up.” She rubbed my shoulders and held out her hands. I quickly got up and helped her. Together, we went into her hogan.
It’s smaller than the house I used to visit her in, but she didn’t care. In a corner was a bed, with a sheepskin blanket draped at the end. In the middle was a fireplace with a pot of water boiling. Shelves of books and photographs took up half of the room and in the corner was a closet and bathroom. Grandmother was walking towards the closet and bathroom. She took out some towels for me, a simple white t-shirt and a pair of jeans. I don’t remember leaving any clothes here. She handed them to me.
“Would you like some tea, shiyazhí? It’s Navajo tea, good for the soul and the body.” I nodded. “Now go change. I have a story for you when you’re done.”
“Ok.” I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. My hair was a frizzy tangled mess. Parts were drying but the humidity made my curls go all over the place. My mascara marked some new territories and changed my face to that of a clown. The floral maroon dress I was wearing was ripped in several places. Probably because of the trees I ran through. My shoes were muddied. Everything looked and felt so gross.
I turned on the shower and started undressing. I washed my face and looked in the mirror again. The clown was gone, but my body was still unfamiliar. I rubbed my cheeks; a faint stubble was growing, and the tiny hairs were noticeable again. They were hidden beneath makeup but washed away from Reneigh’s raincloud.
I need to shave again.
I got in the shower. The water felt so much better and softer than earlier. I grabbed the shampoo, poured some on my hand, and started to rub it through my hair. It slowly started to become untangled and manageable again. Next, the conditioner to help redefine my curls.
I started growing out my hair a decade ago. My parents thought it was part of a rebellious phase, but it wasn’t. The longer it got, the more me I felt. Eventually, I realized that I did not want to be the boy my family was raising yet longed to be the girl I knew I was.
My parents disagreed and threatened to kick me out of their house and the community. It was only because of grandmother that I am still here.
My parents hated who I was becoming and they forced my grandmother to choose; me or them. Grandmother chose me. They resigned from their seats on the council and left the community. Along with the rest of my relatives. They took with them everything in the house and left me there on my own. I woke up the next day in an empty house, but grandmother was there. She’s always been there. She hugged me and told a 10-year-old version of me.
“People fear what they do not understand. My little raincloud, you are more than what people see and you will become something more than what others cannot comprehend. Your power and beauty are not bound by the reality of this world.” Her words confused me at the time and still do. That was also the first memory of her calling me her little raincloud.
After my parents left, their seats on the council were vacant. There were so many clans who wanted them; the Tsénjíkiní (Cliff Dwellers People Clan), the To’aheedlíinii (Water Flows Together Clan) and the Tsi’naajinii (Black Streaked Wood People Clan). Grandmother was still head of the council at the time, she allowed the matriarch of the Tsénjíkiní onto the council, but made a provision for me to keep the hogan I grew up in. There was some disagreement, but no one questioned grandmother.
Yet, over the years, the house began to slowly deteriorate. No one wanted to help keep it up. Everyone refused to help the kid who made the Tábááhas go away. But grandmother used the remainder of her influence to make sure the house was taken care of. Reminding them of the history and knowledge the house held. To lose it, would mean losing something more.
It was later discovered that my family also took with them the ceremonies to bring back the waters, which started a drought that no one knew how to quell. The only thing my family left was an empty house and me, a tranny, or as Koli likes to remind everyone, a boy in a dress.
The pain of being left behind lingered. I felt a tear form. Then another, and another. All blending with the running water. I quickly lather up a loofa and tried to scrub the pain away. After rinsing and shutting off the water, I began to dress again in the clothes grandmother gave me. I don’t know what I will do if she leaves me too. She has always been there for me, a light in the darkness.
I dried my hair as best I could, combed and detangled the curls. When I re-entered the main room, grandmother was sitting at her table with a cup of tea in her hand and one waiting for me. I tentatively sat down; afraid I would break her wobbling chair.
“Yes, much better. Ahé’hee.” She nodded and took a sip. She exhaled slowly and smiled.
“My little raincloud, have I ever told you of the Nádleeh?” I shook my head. “Would you like to hear the story?” I nodded and picked up my tea. The smell of Navajo tea has always had a slight bitterness to it, but nothing a bit of sugar can’t fix.
“Áłk’idáá, a long time ago, long before you or I were born, before this world was created, there were two beings. One who we fondly know as First Woman, made from an ear of yellow corn and the other, First Man, made from the ear of white corn. Together, they helped create the cosmos and all of creation. Then, they began to have children; five pairs of twins to be exact. The first two were the Nádleeh, and they were nothing this world has ever seen before, yet something more.” Grandmother took a small sip from her teacup.
“What do you mean, grandmother?”
“You see, my little raincloud, the Nádleeh were neither a man nor a woman. They were beings who were beyond our understandings of gender identity at the time and still are beyond our understandings of gender. And they were more powerful than their siblings and their parents. Our Diyin Diné’e, the Holy People, the ones who made First Woman and First Man, were in awe of the Nádleeh and loved them so much. The Holy People taught the Nádleeh the secrets of the cosmos before First Woman and First Man had more children. When the other four pairs of twins were born, none of them were like the Nádleeh. The Holy People asked their beloved Nádleeh, if they could teach their siblings, and then the world, the secrets of the cosmos. The Nádleeh agreed. For years, they taught all that they knew while also watching over the world. The Holy People entrusted them with overseeing a dam, which controlled the flow of water into the fields where the three sisters; corn, squash, and beans, played. In their spare time, the Nádleeh also made pottery and basketry for storage and mobility. This made planting and carrying water easier. Yet, as the years went by, and the world changed more and more, the Nádleeh were asked to do one final task for the Holy People.”
“What was that grandmother?” She peered into her cup of tea and sighed.
“They were asked to return to the home of the Holy People. A place beyond ours, beyond the stars and the cosmos. A pocket in the universe that was so far away and yet so near. But, they could not bring their physical bodies with them.”
“What do you mean grandmother?” I asked hesitatingly.
“They were asked to die, my little raincloud.”
“What! Why?” I screamed.
“Because my little raincloud, the Nádleeh embodied the beauty of change and the necessary passage of time. It is from them; we understand the importance of death and birth. A cycle of life that must always be maintained. But, one of the Nádleeh disagreed. They did not want to leave this world, yet the other one understood. And so, they agreed to leave this world. With one final goodbye, the wind, our niłch’i, left their body. As the other Nádleeh mourned, they finally understood why the other decided to leave. It is through pain and suffering that we truly understand the importance of love, happiness, and life. Our time on this world is finite, and that is ok. For we learn to value each day and each breath and are blessed by this awareness. With the loss of their sibling and best friend, the Nádleeh agreed to learn the rights of burial from the Diyin Diné’e. They too shared that knowledge with their other siblings and the world before joining their twin. But that was not the end for them, shiyazhí. From then on, the Nádleeh were tasked with guiding our ancestors back to the Holy People. It is because of them that we can still maintain some connection and relationship with our ancestors.”
Grandmother took another sip of her tea. After a moment of silence, she said, “Unfortunately, though, they have been forgotten and are not welcomed in our community like they use to be. And since then, we have been unable to enter the spiritual world to talk to our ancestors.” I took a sip of my tea. My mind wandering.
“Wait…Grandmother, you can enter the spiritual world though?” She smiled.
“I used to, my little raincloud. Now I can barely walk around my own household without some sort of assistance.” She laughed and continued sipping her tea.
“Wait, grandmother, am I a nádleeh, is that why my family abandoned me?” She stopped sipping her tea, put it down, and looked at me. Like she was seeing beyond me.
“No, my little raincloud. You are not a nádleeh. You are who you say you are and who you choose to be.” A part of myself was confused, yet disappointed.
“Oh…then why did you tell me this story, grandmother?”
“Because, my little raincloud, it is the Nádleeh who control the damn, the flow of waters and they choose who can bring the waters. Not some archaic rule supported by a patriarchal misogynistic agenda.” She shook her hand and rolled her eyes. “If you believe you are a woman and you say you are a woman, then you are a woman, my little raincloud, and by that twisted logic of that fool of a medicine man, then you can bring back the waters and you could probably end this drought of ours that your family started.” I nodded slowly, digesting what grandmother said. Maybe I could bring back the waters, but I could barely do any of the ceremonies taught to us in class.
“I don’t know, grandmother. I could barely manipulate the wind, what makes you think I can bring back the waters?”
“Because you are Tábááhá. Changing Woman gave your family the ceremonies to call forth the waters, and I know you have that gift.” She started to yawn. She must be tired from all the talking, and the tea.
“Grandmother…thank you.” I felt like that is all I could say. She smiled, touched my hand.
“You are more than what people see and know, my little raincloud. I know you can bring back the waters. I believe in you.” But the community doesn’t, I thought.
I nodded and looked at the reminder of tea I have left in my cup.“My little raincloud, it is getting late, you need to get back to your house.” I looked up and grandmother was slowly getting out of the chair. I rushed to help her, but she waved me off. I stood next to her and slowly walked with her to her bed in the corner. She sat down and looked at me. “Thank you for your visit, my little raincloud. Remember…” She grabbed my face. “You are more than what people see. You have a power and beauty that is not bound by our world, my little raincloud.” I leaned down and hugged her. She kissed the side of my hair.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, grandmother. Get some rest.” She let me go and began to lay down on her bed. I covered her with her sheepskin blanket and tucked her in. I closed the door to her hogan and started walking back to the community. The sun was setting. It looked like I have about an hour before the stars share their light.
“You’re just a boy in a dress.” I stopped. Turned around trying to find the person who said that. Nothing. I walked a bit faster.
“Just a boy in a dress. Just a boy in a dress” Someone was singing that. The voice becoming mesmerizing. Koli. Changing Woman gave her family the gift of song, whose voices can be quite towering. She wasn’t alone though. I felt slight shifts in the earth, and I started to run. Nima. She’s the one who tripped me into a puddle of mud last week.
“Oh, come on, Nina. Don’t run to far.” Another voice joined the songs of Koli. Dolly. I could feel her presence all around me, but I knew she wasn’t there physically. Astral projection. She probably hid her body somewhere safe. I left the trail, stumbling deep into the forest for some added protection.
I could get around them. I just need to…
I passed unfamiliar trees and rocks. Layers of green surrounding me until I found myself at the edge of a canyon. The forest hid the depths of the earth until the last minute. Shit.
“Well, well, well. Look who finally stopped running.” Koli and her friends slowly walked from the juniper trees. They were all smiling.
“Why were you running, Nina? Afraid of something…or someone?” Koli asked. “We were looking for you to apologize, but we couldn’t find you. Were you at grandmother’s house?” I kept myself silent. Everyone wanted to visit grandmother but no one else could find her. She hid her place so well after she left the council, mostly because of the ceremonies she surrounded the house with. We stared at each other.
“You know, Nina. There are some rumors that if you leave, the waters will come back. I mean, you are the reason why the Tábááhas left. Maybe they will return, and we can finally end this drought of theirs.” Koli folded her arms and stared at me. Dolly and Nima followed her lead. Where was Reneigh?
“What do you mean, Koli?” Koli smiled. The grin never really reaching her eyes.
“Well, like I said, if you leave, the waters might come back.”
“I’m not exactly following…” I finally noticed the metal in their hand. Knives. “Do you want me to leave? I can leave today. Just…just let me get back to my house and get my stuff, and I will be gone. Out of your lives.” My heart pound against my chest and a sense of dread began to creep up my back. Dolly and Nima looked at Koli and they all started laughing.
“Oh, Nina. How naïve you are. There is more than one way that you can leave, and my mom did give us her blessing to do whatever we can to make sure the waters come back.” My heart started beating faster. They don’t mean what I think they mean.
“Come on Nina, you know how certain ceremonies go when we don’t have the affinity for it.” I gulped.
“You don’t mean…”
“Yes, Nina. A simple sacrifice.” Koli held up her knife. “We need a sacrifice and since you are the only Tábááha around here. We kind of need access to your ancestors.” Dolly and Nima both held out their knives too. These weren’t normal knives, but the knives were given to their ancestors from Changing Women. The handles represented the different sacred stones: turquoise, abalone, white shell, and black jet. But Reneigh wasn’t here, and the abalone knife was the one missing, while Dolly, Nima, and Koli held the other three.
“Thankfully, Reneigh has been so gracious to accept that kind of power. With her, we can access your gift and bring back the waters. Well, theoretically that makes sense to us and the council. Right, girls?” Dolly and Nima nodded, and finally, Reneigh showed up, but not where I expected. She appeared beside me, with the missing abalone-handled knife, and with one slice and a push.
That is what I felt. My niłch’i leaving. The stars were there, lights in the darkness. Sharing their beauty with the world. At least this is the last thing I’ll see and remember. I felt a tear forming and the beauty blurred. I closed my eyes, feeling a weight lifted. I’m waiting for the land to caress me, but nothing. I opened my eyes and I was somewhere else.
“It’s not your time, my little raincloud.” What looked like clouds replaced the darkness. The grass felt different, like soft caress with no edges. Mountains in four directions surrounded me. I was in an unfamiliar valley. Everything seemed to glow. It was almost like the world was glittering.
“Our little raincloud, it is not your time.” I turned to the voice and saw a familiar face.
“Grandmother!” She smiled. Her presence felt like sunshine. Next to her was someone who looked just like her, but it was not her. “Who, who are you?” I asked.
“We cannot guide you back to your ancestors, shiyazhí. The world still needs you.” Their voices were the most beautiful sound I have ever heard. It was like a familiar song, warming your entirety.
“What do you mean? Where am I grandmother?” I was so confused by what grandmother was saying. She kissed my forehead.
“Only you can bring the waters back, my little raincloud. It is with our blessing that we give you back the gift your family took from you.” The world brightened and so did they.
“Wait, grandmother!” I don’t know what was happening, but the light was getting brighter. Grandmother and her twin opened some sort of wall behind them.
“Our little raincloud, you are the only woman who can bring back the waters.” I felt engulfed with water. Being pushed back. Unable and able to breathe simultaneously. I closed my eyes and prepared for the worst to come. Nothing.
I gasped and saw the stars again. I was at the bottom of the canyon. I looked at the edge, Koli and her friends were nowhere to be seen.
Memories of knives and light flashed. I looked down at my clothes. What was once a white shirt was now red. There was so much dried blood. I tentatively touched my neck. There was no blood, just a single lined scar that went from one end of my neck to the other.
How…how did I survive? Koli tried to kill me…or did they actually kill me? But I am still here?
I looked towards the rims of the canyons. No one could have survived that fall, not even with ceremonies.
I grabbed my knees and pulled them in. The realization that I was killed, died, and brought back to life was a lot to process. I started crying.
Only women can bring back the waters.
A whisper in the wind. A reminder. I stood up ignoring the wobbles in my legs. I held out my hands. Feeling a slight vibration in the air.
“Ancestors. I call to you. I ask of you. I command you, bring forth the waters.” Memories of abandonment. The hurt, the pain, the loneliness. Waking up in an empty household. The realization. The anger, the hope, the sadness; everything. Tears streaked down my face. The vibrations in the air grew. The stars disappeared one by one. The vibrations made the world feel alive, but inside, all I could feel was emptiness. My entire life was one atrocity after another. Then, a moment of sunshine. My little raincloud. Grandmother. A memory of her finding me after my family left me resurfaced. She found me. She held me, and since then, she has always loved me. Her little raincloud.
“Bless this land.”
In that single moment of hope. I felt it, a single droplet of water. Then another, and another until the entire canyon was filled with an unfamiliar sound and sight: rain.
Only a woman can bring back the waters.