1953: the American Government decides The Mojave Desert in Arizona for the Plowshare Project Nuclear Weapons Test Site. But no one bothers to tell the Hopi Indians of Oraibi Village to evacuate. “I do recall a man in a uniform stopping by to say this area has been depopulated,” says Litonya, “but I live here — aren’t I population?”
Litonya is collecting cholla buds three miles from the village when a bomb goes off. The wind is blowing easterly that day and by the time she gets home, there are lesions on her face and forearms and her black hair has all but fallen out. When the man from the Government returns a few weeks later, he calls Litonya “plucky” for choosing to remain, his officious demeanor faltering when she smiles revealing every last tooth in her head is missing.
Four months later Litonya goes into premature labor, birthing a creature resembling a muskrat. Doctors whisk it away before she can hold it. Nurses use the word “stillborn” in official documents which are then certified and safely inserted into manila folders and filed.
Litonya writes her congressman. He denies that nuclear testing took place in July, “but thank you for sharing your concerns” — stamped signature. When at last her body is robbed of all energy leaving her constrained to a mat on the living room floor, a Government official informs tribal leaders that Litonya is simply grieving, “what with her recent miscarriage and all.”
That winter, Litonya’s tongue falls off. A Government appointed physician examines her, making offhanded jokes about keeping her mouth shut. “You’ll be fine,” he says, “just take these vitamins and call if you need me.” “How can I call without a tongue?” her eyes query.
Tribal elders try to get compensation for Litonya’s ailments, or at least an apology. But she wonders how one compensates for hair, for teeth, for a tongue. They do, however, send a grief counselor who sits beside her, patting her hand for the better part of an hour before leaving.
The following week, the Government bombs Arizona once again. A strange plume of cloud races across the desert leaving rusty-yellow streaks on the barrel cacti and cattle. Once the orangey particles settle, officials return to the Oraibi Village to survey the damage. But there is no village. There had been a village once, but now ruins are all that’s left.
Officials approach the only house left standing, an adobe just beyond where the village once was. They enter and behold Oraibi’s entire population — Litonya. She lies on the floor, mouth moving in mute vehemence, watching the Government officials enter through her front door.