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37 pages 1 hour read

Leslie Marmon Silko

Lullaby

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 2002

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Lullaby”

"Lullaby” is a short story by Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko—a key figure in the Native American Renaissance. Indeed, “Lullaby” was first published at the height of this literary movement, in Silko’s 1981 collection Storyteller. This collection includes not only short stories but also poetry and photographs; the first edition was also printed in landscape (i.e. horizontal) orientation. By blending genres and playing with form in this way, Silko seeks to capture something of the various indigenous traditions she depicts; their orality, their ceremonial or religious contexts, and their ties to particular locations are examples of specific characteristics. This goal also animates the individual works within the collection, “Lullaby” included; although the short story is not as overtly based on Native American song or legend as some of Storyteller’s other pieces, it is nevertheless rooted in the same culture and history. Page numbers in this study guide refer to the 1981 Arcade Publishing edition of Storyteller.

“Lullaby” follows the actions of its protagonist—an elderly Navajo woman named Ayah—over the course of a single evening. She and her husband Chato live in New Mexico, and they are currently near the town of Cebolleta, where they go once a month to receive their welfare check. Chato typically spends the money on alcohol; as the story opens, he is at a bar.

As Ayah waits for Chato near a creek, she watches the snow fall “in thick tufts like new wool—washed before the weaver spins it” (43). She is wrapped in an Army blanket that was given to her by her now deceased son Jimmie, and she finds herself remembering the blankets her grandmother and mother taught her to weave. She also recalls Jimmie’s birthplace, a traditional Navajo hogan, and his birth, an event Ayah’s mother attended.

As she continues to reflect on her past, Ayah remembers the day a representative of the U.S. Army came to her home to inform her of Jimmie’s death; since Ayah speaks no English, Chato had to translate the news. Jimmie’s death has never felt entirely real to Ayah, but she nevertheless feels his absence keenly. She especially regrets that Jimmie was not there on the day some white doctors arrived to inform her that her two young children, Ella and Danny, had to be treated for tuberculosis. Unable to understand what the doctors were saying and anxious to see them leave, Ayah signed her name on the papers they presented to her.

When Ayah realized the men intended to take her children, she ran up into the hills with the children; however, the doctors returned with police the following day and forced her to surrender Ella and Danny. This event echoes the losses Ayah sustained when some of her infant children had died while they were still very young. Because Chato had taught her to sign her name in English, Ayah held him responsible for the loss of the children and refused to sleep beside him for years, only returning when he was fired by his employer—a white rancher—for being too old: “That had satisfied her. To see how the white man repaid Chato’s years of loyalty and work” (47).

Back in the present, Ayah decides to go looking for Chato at Azzie’s Bar. The men inside the bar respond to her presence with suspicion, which reminds her of the woman who twice brought Danny and Ella home for visits; the woman was visibly uncomfortable, and by the second visit, Ella herself had forgotten her mother and looked at her fearfully. Danny, though he remembered Ayah, had largely forgotten how to speak Navajo. As the woman left with the children, it was clear they would not be returning.

Failing to find Chato in the bar, Ayah searches for him outside. She looks forward to leaving Cebolleta and returning to their hogan, where they keep a few sheep and an increasingly dried-out garden. As she approaches Chato, who has started to suffer from dementia, he looks at her as though he doesn’t remember who she is. A storm is approaching, so she urges him to take shelter with her behind a boulder and wraps him in her blanket. As the storm passes, Ayah looks up at the starry sky and feels an overwhelming sense of peace. Realizing that Chato, who has fallen asleep, is dying, Ayah sings a traditional lullaby. 

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