Fall 1995, Volume 12.3
Landscape, Story, and Time as Elements of Reality in Silko's 'Yellow Woman'
Robin Cohen teaches English at Southwest Texas State U. She is currently working on her doctorate at Texas A&M University.
On its surface, Leslie Marmon Silko's short story "Yellow Woman," in her book Storyteller, appears to be the simple story of a young woman's brief romantic adventure with a handsome, mysterious stranger named Silva. Perhaps because of its apparent simplicity, little has been written by critics about it. Joan Thompson observes that, "by calling her Yellow Woman, [Silva] makes her question her sense of what is real," and that he "ties her experience to Yellow Woman and to stories as continuing instead of being a thing of the past" (24, 25). Other critics writing on Storyteller devote a paragraph or two to "Yellow Woman," saying, for example, that the woman imagines that she is Yellow Woman or compares herself to Yellow Woman. Patricia Clark Smith and Paula Gunn Allen suggest that it is a "masterfully ambiguous story, whose heroine [is] like Yellow Woman…" and that "many details in the story parallel the old Keres tales of Yellow Woman and Whirlwind Man or Buffalo Man" (189). Examination of Silko's use of intertwined traditional Pueblo concepts about landscape, storytelling, and non-linear time allows us to go one step further. The young woman is not just like Yellow Woman; she is Yellow Woman. Likewise, the story is not parallel to the old Keres tales; it is one of the old Keres tales, retold.
In one of the old Keres tales, Yellow Woman, or Kochininako, is abducted by a ka'tsina (or by the Sun) and taken to his mountain home for ten months. She returns to her people with twin baby boys, who become the Hero Twins in other stories. In another story, she deserts her husband, Arrow Youth, to run off with Buffalo Man; this story is retold in "Cottonwood, Part Two: Buffalo Story," one of the Yellow Woman poems in Storyteller. In yet another story, Yellow Woman's husband, Shak-ak, or Winter, and Miochin, or Summer, fight over her. Their compromise is that she will live with Summer for half of the year, and with Winter for the other half, thus accounting for the change of seasons (Tyler, Gods 166). Yellow Woman is one the Corn Sisters. As an agrarian goddess, she often acts as an intercessor for rain, and she is associated with the moon and with hunting (Tyler, Animals 28, 105).
Silko's story is closest to the story of Yellow Woman's abduction by a ka'tsina. A young woman, walking along a river, meets Silva and impulsively runs off with him, leaving husband and baby. At times, Silva seems to be abducting her, yet twice, when given the opportunity to escape, she returns to him. After the first day of their two-day journey to his mountain home, she jokingly says that she is Yellow Woman and he is the ka'tsina; from that point on, he calls her Yellow Woman and gives her no other information about himself, saying "Last night you guessed my name, and you knew why I had come" (55). They spend their second night together at his cabin in the mountains. The next day, he poaches a steer and they set off for Marquez to sell the meat. On the way, they are confronted by a white rancher, apparently unarmed. Silva tells the young woman to ride away. Once she is on the other side of the hill, she hears four shots, presumably Silva shooting the rancher. She then heads back home to rejoin her family, thinking, "He will come back sometime and be waiting again by the river" (62). As she approaches her home, she hears her family going about their daily routine and decides to tell them she had been kidnapped, but remembers the old Yellow Woman stories.
To a reader raised with Western European concepts of time and stories, this retelling of the old tale might seem like just a modern analogue, but in the Pueblo tradition, "retellings" are more than just tired reruns. Silko said in an interview, "Every time a story is told, and this is one of the beauties of the oral tradition, each telling is a new and unique story, even if it's repeated word for word by the same teller sitting in the same chair" (Barnes 88). She also has written, "We make no distinctions between the stories—whether they are history, whether they are fact, whether they are gossip—these distinctions are not useful when we are talking about this particular experience with language" (Silko, "Language" 60). In the particular case of "Yellow Woman," what could be seen as just contemporary gossip is set in a frame of very traditional storytelling devices.
One of these devices is the result of the importance in Pueblo culture of the cardinal directions (north, west, south, and east being the usual four of importance, with nadir and zenith sometimes added) and the symbolic colors associated with them—yellow for the north, blue for the west, red for the south, white for the east, variegated for nadir, and black for zenith (Parsons 99). Tyler explains that, in the Pueblo world view, the individual and his/her town or pueblo are at the center of the universe, and that orienting oneself to the directions in relation to that center is vital in this agrarian society because it puts one in a "right relationship with the sun," which makes the journey east to west every day, north to south and back again each year (Gods 171). An example of such orientation would be a singer repeating stanzas of a song for each of the four compass directions, facing each in turn (404). Parsons writes that these directions and colors are important in ritual and folk tale and that "direction colors are paramount in thought" (54). Paula Gunn Allen writes that "orienting oneself to the directions is basic to all Native North American peoples" (110). She further explains that traditional stories are ritual in nature and "organized along the axis of directions, movements of the participants—[with] events sketched in only as they pertained to directions" (232).
Silko makes use of direction orientation through symbolic use of color in "Yellow Woman." In Ceremony, Silko associated symbolic colors with specific characters, as Edith Swan has noted in her useful article on the subject. In "Yellow Woman," the symbolic colors are part of the landscape. The first paragraph is loaded with color imagery: "brown water birds," "brown scratches in the alkali-white crust," "green ragged moss and fern leaves," "red blanket on the white river sand" (54). At this point in their journey, Silva and the woman are still in the lowlands, and the multicolored landscape is associated with the variegated coloration of nadir. When they ascend to the mountains, they are surrounded by the black of zenith: "dark lava hills," the house made of "black lava rock and red mud," "black horse," "black rim rock," "black mountain dirt," "black ants" (56 - 59).
As they travel, they orient themselves to the four directions. The story begins in medias res with the woman awakening, facing east, watching the sun rise (54). She starts to leave Silva and head back home, "follow[ing] the river south the way we had come the afternoon before" (54). So we can see that they started in the south, heading north. She spends the night facing east. These directional mappings are supported with color imagery: She looks south to the "pale red mesas to the pueblo," and Silva lies "asleep in the red blanket" (54), the red of the south. She faces east while lying on white river sand, mentioned twice in the same paragraph (54), and cited again two pages later (56)—sand as the color of the east.
Then they continue heading north into the mountains to Silva's house. As they stand atop the mountain, Silva continues the directional orientation that has been part of their journey, saying, "'From here I can see the world…. The Navajo reservation begins over there.' He pointed to the east. 'The Pueblo boundaries are over here.' He looked below us to the south, where the narrow trail seemed to come from" (57-58).
Here, color imagery of the north and of the west, the direction they will take to Marquez, intertwine. The woman observes the mountain vista and says:
I was standing in the sky with nothing around me but the wind that came down from the blue mountain peak behind me.… I wondered who was over there to feel the mountain wind on those sheer blue edges—who walks on the pine needles in those blue mountains. (57)
Later, she sees "blue flowers growing in the meadow behind the stone house" (59); since the house's only window, presumably on the front of the house, faces east (57), the back would face west, the direction associated with blue. As they leave for Marquez, which she tries to spot as she looks to the trail heading west (60), she observes as they head away from the north that "the wildflowers were closing up their deep-yellow petals" and that, although the cactus flowers were all colors, "the white ones and the red ones were still buds, but the purple and the yellow were blossoms, open full and the most beautiful of all" (60), mixing the yellow of the north and the blue of the west.
In "Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination," Silko writes of the stories about the Emergence and Migration and their mention of specific geographical landmarks:
Prominent geographical features and landmarks which are mentioned in the narratives exist for ritual purposes, not because the Laguna people actually journeyed south for hundreds of years from Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde, as the archaeologists say, or eight miles from the site of the natural springs at Paguate to the sandstone hilltop at Laguna. The eight miles, marked with boulders, mesas, springs, and river crossings, are actually a ritual circuit or path which marks the interior journey the Laguna people made: a journey of awareness and imagination.…(91)
Likewise, Silko's use of particular landmarks, such as locating Silva's mountain home in the very real mountains with the Navajo reservation to the east, the Pueblos to the south, and Marquez to the west, along with the circuitous orientation to the directions, identifies "Yellow Woman" as a traditional tale, not just gossip, and gives this story elements of ritual.
About this specificity of place, Silko says of the Pueblos:
One [advantage] that we have enjoyed is that we have always been able to stay with the land. The stories cannot be separated from geographical locations, from actual physical places within the land. We were not relocated like so many Native American groups who were torn away from our ancestral land. And the stories are so much a part of these places that it is almost impossible for future generations to lose the stories because there are so many imposing geological elements…. You cannot live in that land without asking or looking or noticing a boulder or rock. And there's always a story. There's always at least one story connected with those places. (Silko, "Language" 698)
By tying her story to the land, Silko also ties it to the old stories.
The characters' identification with other elements of landscape further strengthens their identification with the characters in the traditional stories. Silva lives in the mountains, as did the ka'tsinas of the old stories. Silva, in Spanish, means a type of Spanish verse, or an anthology , associating the character with stories or language. And the word is closely related to the Spanish word selva, or forest. According to Smith and Allen, this associates the character with "wilderness in all its wonder, its threat and vulnerability" and the heroine's embracing of wilderness is a sign of her heightened sexual awareness (189). Furthermore, when the woman first encounters him, he trims willow leaves from the branch; when she returns, she finds the leaves wilted in the sand, and seeing them stirs her longing for Silva. He is a part of the wilderness, like a tree, and the freedom of the wilderness inspires sexual freedom in the woman. When they make love, he pushes her "down into the white river sand" (56), making her one with the earth.
In the traditional tales, Yellow Woman is associated with the moon, and so is the young woman in Silko's story. When she asks Silva who he is after their first night together, he replies, "Last night you guessed my name, and you knew why I had come." She says, "I stared past him at the shallow moving water and tried to remember the night, but I could only see the moon in the water and remember his warmth around me" (55). Later, when she decides to stay with him, she thinks, "Silva had come for me; he said he had. I did not decide to go, I just went. Moonflowers blossomed in the sand hills before dawn, just as I followed him" (59).
Although places in the traditional stories may be very tangible and specific, time is not. Silko has written, "The precise date of the incident often is less important than the place or location of the happening. 'Long, long ago,' 'a long time ago,' 'not too long ago,' and 'recently' are usually how stories are classified in terms of time" (Silko, "Landscape" 89). When reading from her latest novel, Almanac of the Dead, in San Antonio in October 1991, Silko said that this novel "tries to crush linear time" and went on to explain that "at Laguna, things that happened 500 years ago might as well have happened yesterday."
In "Yellow Woman," Silko crushes linear time through its narrative structure and by blurring her character's perception of time. As mentioned earlier, the story begins in medias res, not when the woman and Silva meet by the river, but the next morning after they have spent the night together. And the story follows the circuitous structure of their journey, from south to east to north to west, then her return alone to the south again.
Initially, the young woman believes that the talk of Yellow Woman is only a joke or a trick. Although she has decided to continue on with Silva, when he persists in calling her Yellow Woman and does not further identify himself, she has second thoughts: "I don't have to go. What they tell in stories was real only then, back in time immemorial, like they say." His only reply is to order her to accompany him. She goes along, thinking,
I will see someone, eventually I will see someone, and then I will be certain that he is only a man—some man from nearby—and I will be sure that I am not Yellow Woman. Because she is from out of time past and I live now and I've been to school and there are highways and pickup trucks that Yellow Woman never saw. (56)
In the wilderness, she is outside of time. She needs to see familiar touchstones, the trappings of modern civilization and of her everyday life, to reassure herself that she indeed lives in modern times.
Later, she refers to his story of being a ka'tsina and her being Yellow Woman as a trick. She says, "I don't believe it. Those stories couldn't happen now." He replies, "But someday they will talk about us, and they will say, 'Those two lived long ago when things like that happened'" (57).
She eventually decides to stay, and thinks about her family:
They would be wondering about me, because this had never happened to me before. The tribal police would file a report. But if old Grandpa weren't dead he would tell them what happened—he would laugh and say, "Stolen by a ka'tsina, a mountain spirit. She'll come home—they usually do." There are enough of them to handle things. My mother and grandmother will raise the baby like they raised me. Al will find someone else, and they will go on like before, except that there will be a story about the day I disappeared while I was walking along the river. (59)
While thinking about the ordinary practicalities such as who would raise the baby and what would happen to her husband, she remembers her grandfather's appreciation of the old stories, realizing that he would place her in one of them if he still lived. Likewise, she realizes that a new story would arise from her disappearance. Here, she is part of the old world, part of the new.
Such dual residency would not be contradictory in the traditional Pueblo oral tradition. Silko writes in her essay on the Pueblo imagination that conflicting versions of stories coexist harmoniously, even within the same storytelling session; the narrator
emphasizes to listeners this is the way she has always heard the story told. The ancient Pueblo people sought a communal truth, not an absolute. For them this truth lived somewhere within the web of differing versions, disputes over minor points, outright contradictions.… ("Landscape" 88)
By remembering her grandfather's love of the old stories, she arrives at the communal if not absolute truth that she is Yellow Woman. At one point, she wonders "if Yellow Woman had known who she was…. Maybe she'd had another name that her husband and relatives called her so that only the ka'tsina from the north and the storytellers would know her as Yellow Woman" (55). Throughout the story, she refers to Silva and her husband, Al, by name, but she has none, other than Yellow Woman. Now, the name seems truly hers.
After Silva's encounter with the white rancher and her forced flight back home, she finds the wilted willow leaves and yearns for Silva, but knows that she cannot go back at this time. She says, "And I told myself, because I believe it, he will come back sometime and be waiting again by the river" (62).
As she approaches the screen door of her home, and as she smells supper cooking and hears her mother and grandmother discussing Jello preparation, she decides "to tell them that some Navajo had kidnapped me, but I was sorry that old Grandpa wasn't alive to hear my story because it was the Yellow Woman stories he liked to tell best" (62). Despite confrontation with the ordinary and tangible kinds of things she yearned for earlier to help her get a grip on "reality," she realizes now her place in the story. She understands, though, that only old Grandpa could have understood through his knowledge and understanding of the storytelling traditions, traditions that transcend time.
Silko has written that the Pueblo perspective is "concerned with including the whole of creation and the whole of history and time" (Silko, "Language" 54). People and animals and landscape are part of each other; past and present are part of each other. There is no separation between story reality and "real" reality; they are parts of the whole. And, indeed, years from now people will talk about Silva and Yellow Woman, back then when those things happened.
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