Danielle Shandiin Emerson

Firsts and Lasts

The first hands that held her were her mother’s. She remembered how they were—soft, warm, firm. Hands that brushed the hair out of her face, rubbing circles along the edges of her cheeks. Hands that seemed to cup love in everything she made, turning it into soup and hot chocolate. They’d sit up together, wrapped in blankets, watching the fireplace.

Worn picture frames dotted the walls. The people in photographs became darkened shadows against the flickering light. If she squinted, she could make out the rough features of her father’s young face. Sharp lines crisscrossing under bagged eyes. Stood straight and tall over her mother’s medium height. If she closed her eyes, she could imagine them happy, smiling, laughing even. Eventually, the photograph turned yellow with age, becoming frayed at the edges. Those nights spent streamed in orange were silent. When her mother threw the yellow photos into the fire, she wondered why they took so long to burn.

The warmth of her mother’s hands also lingered behind her eyes. Sometimes light, resembling the soft brush of a late sunset. Other times sharp, challenging that of a seething cast iron stove, harsh and strict. Every now and then, she felt a pinch of heat collecting at the base of her cheekbones. She wondered if she had it too. Her mother’s fever. Each night, she’d place her palm against her forehead, press them into the dips of her eyes, then bring both hands up to cup her cheeks. Warm, like always. But never burning. Despite it all, she always felt cold, longing for the fire caught in her own mother’s fingertips.  

The first night her father snuck out the back door, she asked questions.

Haadí éí shizhe’é? / Where’s dad?

Hwoláh. / Don’t know.

Each night her father snuck out prompted a new question—thoughts coiling and slithering in the pit of her stomach. She’d turn her head, barely catching the gray of his torn work shirt before it slipped out the door—opening, then slamming shut. Followed by the all too familiar cold, November air rushing in and crowding her face. Two pairs of brown eyes watching from the kitchen. The sound of their beaten truck spitting and sputtering down the dirt road. Only after the stillness of the land returned, did she muster up enough courage to ask again. But each question was met with the same answer in a tight voice.


Her first friend was a boy with purple along the curve of his back. They sat side by side atop a rusted car frame. He didn’t smile much, keeping his lips tightly sealed across the bottom of his face. His eyes were like hers—dark, plain. They could have been siblings. They looked so alike. Every evening, they stole away to the forgotten junkyard down the dirt road.

Her hand in his. She used to knock on his door—to ‘play’ as kids called it. He loved her toys. The white bunny rabbit with pink ears—Matty. The one-armed barbie doll with tangled hair—Laci. The plastic truck covered in peeling Veggie Tales stickers—Toms. But his favorite was a black horse she got for Christmas last year. She didn’t mind sharing.

Every other evening, his older brother turned her away at the door, smelling like what she would later recognize as cigarette smoke. The boy’s parents were never home. But he didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he preferred it that way. His older brother liked to slam doors, especially in peoples’ faces. She turned back to the road. The plastic horse growing cold in her hands. It didn’t have a name, like the rest of her toys. But she knew he loved it, nonetheless.

She found him in their usual spot, cast in orange light, shadows retreating to the small crevices of his face. Some days were like this. Some days he cried without telling her why. She climbed up, nearly tripping over the long sleeves of her tattered sweater. Her feet dangled off the car hood, the icy metal burning the palms of her hands. He didn’t like to be touched, so she offered her silence instead. As the sun disappeared, he slowly took her hand in his.

Ahéheeʼ. / Thank you.

She took a deep breath and quickly passed him the plastic horse.

“You can have it.” Her voice felt too loud. She didn’t know if she preferred the silence. He took it carefully, nodding.

She forced a shrug and nodded back.

That night, she became the first person he ever showed those markings to. It churned her stomach. Tracing the air above each blot, resisting the urge to press down. She turned her gaze upwards, brown meeting brown.

Niwos haait’ish? / What happened to your shoulder?

He wouldn’t look at her.

She saw similar markings on the underside of her mother’s arms—a sickly shade of dark lilac. Her mind went back to that evening in the junkyard. Where they held hands on that car hood until she tugged him back home, feet dragging. She poked her mother’s shoulder.

Nighaan haait’ish? / What happened to your arm?

Adin. / Nothing. 

The boy—Darius—was her first funeral. His mother was sent to jail. His father didn’t show up. She didn’t know why. Thinking back, she can’t recall ever meeting his parents. At the viewing, she wondered if those markings were still there under his suit. She wondered if the purple stained the cloth, mixing with gray. She wondered where the plastic horse went, and if Darius ever named it.

His death became the first lie her parents told her. “Hush. He’s just sleeping.” At eleven she knew what death was. She didn’t know who they expected to be fooling.

Her last memory of Darius was of their late-night swims in the ditch. Their neighbors owned a farm, the ditch supplied water for the crops. She’d climb out her window and meet him at the fork in the road, about a five-minute walk away. He always wore a t-shirt, sometimes two. The water was always cold. Darius always seemed to be cold. Those nights were the only time she saw him smile—really smile. With teeth and crinkled eyes.

At fourteen, she woke up one morning and realized she couldn’t place his face. She’d visit his grave when she could. Some days smiling, reiterating crazy stories of Jerica—a girl in school they both loathed since kindergarten. Some days swallowing rocks, wiping tears from her eyes. He’d come in dreams, grazing the tips of her memories. She’d swear to herself in the morning that she saw his smile—the circular birthmark above his left eyebrow scrunched. But it’d disappear by lunch. Soon, all she could remember was the unnamed horse. She wondered if time would steal that away from her as well.

Slowly, home became her aunt’s. A farm about fifteen miles outside of her father’s house. Land made to grow and harvest corn. Her aunt also housed cousins and uncles. There was never a dull moment, never an uncomfortable piece of silence. But her mother refused to move out with her. She wondered if she made the right choice.

Her last day home before college, her father called—his speech slurred. “Come home dammit.”

She could practically smell the Bud Light on his breath. It was always a gamble answering his calls. Hitting decline got easier and easier. The last time she spoke to her father, he threatened to hurt her. She changed her number and called to check on her mother.

Her first Christmas back home, her mother moved in with their aunt. She helped bring her mother’s things into their shared bedroom, taping up old photos and crumpled finger-paintings. She recognized a few of them, once framed and hung over their old fireplace. Slowly her mother’s arms healed, the warmth returning to her hands, the purple fading. The night before Christmas, they sat up together, sipping mutton stew; A stillness anchoring their shared breathing. As the fire slowed, her mother handed her a tattered photograph.

“Merry Christmas, Shundiin.”

She took it gingerly, smoothing its edges. She instantly recognized herself, caught somewhere between the ages of seven and ten. But it took her a moment to place the other person in the photograph—a young boy, with wild hair and brown eyes. They were posing, arms wrapped around each other’s boney shoulders. In the corner of the picture, tucked under the boy’s left arm, was a black horse. A sad smile tugged at the corner of her lips. She looked up. “Merry Christmas, Mom.”

She rested her head against her mother’s shoulder, noting how she didn’t wince or pull away. Side by side, she couldn’t help but be reminded of the junkyard, of their old fireplace—of all the firsts and lasts. Looking back now, Shundiin distinctly remembers how warm they both were.

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Danielle Shandiin Emerson is a Diné writer from Shiprock, New Mexico on the Navajo Nation. Her clans are Tłaashchi’i (Red Cheek People Clan), born for Ta’neezaahníí (Tangled People Clan). She has a BA in Education Studies and a BA in Literary Arts from Brown University. Danielle writes fiction, poetry, plays, and creative essays. Her work centers Diné culture, perspectives, and personal narratives.