A Novel of Early California
Copyright © 2008 Willard Thompson
All rights reserved.
Sounds in the dry grass alerted Cayatu. Her fingers curled around the handle of her flint knife. Rising cautiously from her cooking fire, she hardened her resolve to do whatever she had to in the next few minutes to protect herself. Her skirt of tule fronds rustled against her legs as she moved to the bank of the small stream that flowed by her lean-to. The clamshells in her necklace danced between her breasts, making soft, tinkling sounds. The valley around her lay parched. Days of dryness had given it a stale smell that signaled the end of another acorn-growing season.
Knife poised, she waited, ready to defend her life, only to see two gray-robed Franciscan monks, wooden crosses swinging from their rope belts, emerge on the far bank. Open-mouthed, the two men stared at her.
Cayatu watched as the older of the two missionaries drew a cross across his chest with his fingers.
"Alavado sea Dios!" His words meant nothing to her and she continued to stare. Then he spoke haltingly in her language. "Put knife away, niña. You have nothing to fear from us."
She giggled at his awkward speech and relaxed. "I was afraid," she said.
Franciscans were familiar to Cayatu. As a little girl she remembered them walking into her village as they journeyed along the coast, always curious to learn her language and curious to see how her people lived, and always accompanied by leather-jacketed soldiers. After each visit, Qoloq, the shaman, would warn the village about them.
A smile came to her now when the old monk, and the other one in his middle years, hiked their robes above their knees, showing white legs, and waded the stream.
"I am Esteben Salamanca," the old one said smiling, showing teeth dulled by his years. He might have been a tall man when he was younger—as tall as her father, she guessed—but now age stooped him over. Sparse white hair circled his head like a wreath, leaving his crown bald and sun scarred.
"This is Brother Fermin Ortiz," Salamanca introduced the younger man. "We're going to the Presidio de Santa Barbara."
Salamanca paused. Cayatu watched him look around at her lean-to and cooking fire. He seemed to struggle for words.
"Why aren't you in your village? Why are you living here?"
She drew in a breath, let it escape her lips. "I am outcast," she said.
"Qoloq banished me here during the last acorn-growing season."
Fermin Ortiz had kept silent so far. The intense way he stared at her gave Cayatu a shiver. It was a stare her people would have called rude. She backed away a step. He took a step toward her.
"Your village—how far?" he asked.
Though he spoke her words, Cayatu had to puzzle their meaning for a moment. Then her face brightened with understanding. She pointed toward the ocean. "A short walk."
Ortiz turned to examine the rabbit sizzling on a wooded spit at her cooking fire a few yards off. Turning back to her, his Chumash words came slowly. "We're tired. Hungry. Still a long walk."
"We'll go to your village," Salamanca told her. "It's not much out of our way." Cayatu saw the frown Ortiz gave Salamanca but didn't understand its meaning.
"Will you lead us?" Salamanca asked.
"If you'll keep me safe," she replied.
* * *
She led the Franciscans back along the main trail to a side path that branched toward the ocean. The village's round huts, built of bent willow poles covered with tule mats, clung to the edge of an oak grove. The oaks gave way to a sand beach, and the beach disappeared under calm waters that rippled over sand and pebbles.
Cayatu watched tiny waves lapping against the planks of two tomols pulled up on the beach. The sight brought a smile to her face. She looked around for other canoes before moving down the path but didn't see any.
Walking through the village, she studied the huts. Some needed repairs. One or two had fallen down since her banishment. The smell of simmering acorn gruel, rising into the pale morning sky with the smoke from cooking fires, awakened her hunger and brought back memories of happier times.
In front of the shaman's hut Cayatu called out for her sister. She smiled her joy when Tanayan stepped from the dim interior into the strong morning light. Older by almost twelve seasons, shorter and rounder, Tanayan stiffened on seeing her. She rubbed her eyes as if to rub away Coyote's trick, and then ran to embrace Cayatu, tears sliding down her fleshy cheeks.
"Little Sister, I've missed you," she whispered. "I've missed you every day.... I was wrong—"
"—You were wrong, but I forgave you long ago." Cayatu gave her arm a reassuring touch. "I've come to the edge of the village often hoping to catch some sight of you."
"—So, you've come back." Qoloq swaggered from the hut, a bear tooth necklace bouncing off his chest with the abruptness of his movements. He leered at Cayatu and waved a baton made from a deer's leg bone as he spoke. The bone was inset with obsidian flakes that caught the sunlight as he waved it. It seemed to Cayatu, Qoloq was sprinkling his words about like sparks in the morning air.
"I knew you would," he gloated. "I told Tanayan you would come back. I knew Coyote—"
He stopped short. Open mouthed, Qoloq pointed the baton at the priests. "Why are the grayrobes here?"
"To visit your village," Esteben Salamanca said, understanding Qoloq's gesture with the deer bone.
Fermin Ortiz added haltingly, "Your people join our missions."
"—You steal them!" Qoloq hissed. He pulled himself erect, pointing the baton directly at Ortiz.
Ortiz straightened. "We don't steal. They come freely."
"We'll have a new mission in Santa Barbara," Salamanca interrupted. "Your people will do God's work there."
"Your god is nothing!" Qoloq sneered, puffing out his chest and shaking the baton at the missionaries. "First People are real—Sun and Eagle and Coyote of the Sky, Lizard, Moon, all of them. You lure our people away with false promises. If my people don't return, Coyote will punish them."
Cayatu watched the priests stand their ground. Their eyes were fixed on Qoloq's lips, struggling to understand the words he flung at them. Each man fingered his wooden cross. She turned to look at Qoloq, staring belligerently back at them, holding his baton like a shield.
* * *
Cayatu felt Tanayan take her hand. Standing beside her sister, Cayatu smiled again when she saw her nephew racing up from the beach. His long hair flowing behind him in the breeze brought a quickening to her heart.
"I saw you.... On the path.... I was at the tomols.... You've come back," he said, catching his breath and hugging her. "I hoped you would."
Cayatu held him in her arms. Grown almost to an adult, Massilili was a strong, agile young man.
"I will give the girl my permission to return to the village," Qoloq boasted to the missionaries. He turned to her, looking smug, then back to the priests. "She's an orphan. Her sister and I raised her when her parents traveled across the Rainbow Bridge to the Peaceful Place. Now, I've picked a man for her to marry. He's paid me well because he desires a young beauty like her. He wants to lie with her and run his hands over her breasts. She'll live in his hut. Bear his children—"
"—I won't! I won't lie with a man just to ease your life!" Cayatu's voice rang with anger. "I'd rather live alone and move about as I please." She confronted Qoloq, moving forward so her face pressed close to his, not letting him see her tremble. "You banished Ysaga—I'll have no other husband. You have no power over me anymore, Qoloq." She stopped to look around, then pointed to the other huts. "Our village grows smaller. People leave. They go to the missions of the Spanish. I'll go too."
Tanayan rushed in front of Qoloq and fell at his feet, "Let her stay and find her own husband. Don't drive her away again."
The pleading in Tanayan's voice seemed to anger Qoloq.
Cayatu watched his face contort.
"I took her in as an orphan; she must do as I tell her," he shouted at his wife.
The priests withdrew several steps, looking uncertainly at Qoloq.
Cayatu tensed at Qoloq's words. She hesitated only a moment before turning to Massilili. "My father—your grandfather—led the Brotherhood of the Canoe and I have a rightful high place here. I won't obey Qoloq. I won't live in the village unless I can live free as I was born to live."
Cayatu turned on Qoloq. "I'd rather die from Rattlesnake's venom than live out my seasons controlled by you." She turned to the missionaries. "Will you take me with you?"
Salamanca and Ortiz spoke rapidly back and forth in Spanish.
"Hmm," Salamanca mused after their brief discussion, "Praise God." Turning to face Cayatu, speaking haltingly again, he said, "We'll take you to Santa Barbara, Niña. We'll baptize you. But the mission's not built. Hard work lies ahead. Hardship—you should wait."
"I will go with you now," she said, edging away from Qoloq when she saw anger burn in his eyes like the coals in a cooking fire. "I won't live here!"
Qoloq sneered, "You live in the valley like an animal. You have no Dream Helper to guide you. Your chance of having a man fades with your beauty, like each season fades into the next. Your safe life is here with a man I choose for you."
Cayatu turned her back on him. She hugged Massilili to her breast and reached out for Tanayan's hand. "I'll come back to visit," she said.
Tanayan nodded understanding.
"Coyote was right, you're a cursed woman," Qoloq grumbled.
Cayatu wiped her tears with the back of her hand and forced a smile at Tanayan. She looked up into Massilili's angular face and put her hand on his muscled shoulder. "I helped your mother raise you—"
"—The way I raised Cayatu after our mother went to the Peaceful Place giving her life and your grandfather was lost in the ocean," Tanayan told her son.
"You're almost grown now," Cayatu said.
"Qoloq teaches me the healing secrets," Massilili told her. "I'll be shaman after him."
Tanayan went into the hut. Cayatu felt a lump rise in her throat when her sister reappeared holding a sea-otter-skin skirt. It was the same skirt Qoloq had stripped from her in anger the previous gathering season when he sent her from the village for lying with Ysaga. "Wear this," Tanayan said. "I'll paint village colors and weave shells in your hair so you can go proudly. Show all the light-skin men the dignity we have."
"No!" Qoloq ordered. "It's not allowed."
"Stop!" Tanayan scolded him. "She's my sister."
The Franciscans frowned. Talking in hushed voices, they averted their eyes while Tanayan painted Cayatu's face and breasts. After she finished the symbols, Tanayan went back inside the hut a second time. She emerged holding a slender-necked shell basket, woven of tules with designs of dark rushes and sumac shoots. Wiping a tear, Tanayan held it out to Cayatu.
"Our mother wove this while she waited for you to come into our world, Little Sister. It contains all the love she had for her unborn daughter. She died giving you life, but this basket still holds her love. Take it with you to your new life."
Cayatu and the Franciscans walked the length of the parched valley. They skirted the marsh fed by ocean water, alive with the shrieks of ocean birds and the smell of souring vegetation.
Stopping on a slight rise to admire the scene, Salamanca placed his hand gently on her shoulder.
"He was the one you readied the knife for," he said, more than asked.
She stayed quiet but nodded slightly.
"You are safe with us," he assured her.
Cayatu followed the Franciscans. Soon the priests fell into their own words, paying her no attention.
"So, our task begins again Brother Fermin," Salamanca said to the younger man. "And a new role for you."
"Aí, and no easy task. These people seem slow to learn, lazy. They have human form, but it's hard to believe they belong to mankind. Look at the heathen symbols painted on the girl."
"They'll come to our mission, you'll see. Soon, we'll have our hands full." Salamanca looked deep into the younger priest's face, but without criticism. "Try a gentler approach, Brother Fermin. You may learn a lot from these people. Learn to speak their language."
"That's no easy task, either," Ortiz responded. "God help me, my tongue stumbles over my teeth when I speak their words—Look there!" Ortiz interrupted himself to point at a hawk floating down from the mountains crowding the valley in the north. Its tail feathers shone reddish- pink in the afternoon light. "The hawk's a hunter." Ortiz gave Salamanca a hard look. "God ordains it to rule over this valley."
* * *
Cayatu saw the hawk had spotted something in the dry grass. She stayed still but her eyes went back and forth from the bird to the two Franciscans.
The hawk hovered overhead. Cayatu drew in a quick breath when it folded its wings and plummeted out of the sky, diving so fast its feathers quivered. The bird leveled off inches above the ground not ten paces away when its talon pierced its prey. The trio standing by the marsh heard a squeal. The hawk called a triumphant kee-ah, kee-ah.
The hawk flew to a rock a few yards off. Cayatu watched the bird preen, holding a mouse securely on its claw. She watched the priests caught up in the drama.
As the three watched, the bird began to retract its claw, holding the rodent with its beak. When the mouse came free of the talon it gave a sudden twitch that seemed to surprise the bird and cause it to open its beak to get a better grip. In that instant, Cayatu saw the mouse drop to the ground and wedge itself against the rock.
She suppressed her grin so the grayrobes wouldn't notice. She guessed a creature from the World Below, some mischievous spirit, had intervened. The thought amused Cayatu at first. But then, as she considered the unpredictability of life in the Middle World, it gave her pause. Spirits were capricious, she knew. They could change the path of any life for their own amusement.
For several minutes she watched the hawk's efforts to reclaim its meal. The bird stormed around the rock, an explosion of wings and slashing talons, but the curve of its beak and the overhang of the rock gave the bird no way to snag the mouse. It uttered one final, defiant kee-ah and flew off.
* * *
Esteben Salamanca resumed the walk, urging the others along with him. He stayed quiet for a short way but then turned to Ortiz. "We strive to know God's ways," he said to his companion, "but his ways are always a mystery to man."
Late in the afternoon the trio entered El Presidio de Santa Barbara, a stockade dominating a slight rise overlooking the ocean. Ortiz put his hand over his nose to block the stench of animal and human waste, mingling with the smells from cooking pots outside soldiers' quarters. The odors clawed at his stomach, reminding him of his growing hunger.
He watched a band of soldiers moving about the dusty parade ground. He saw their eyes follow Cayatu.
"She's a comely girl to tempt these men," Salamanca said, as if reading Ortiz's thoughts. "Look how those shells sparkle in her hair."
"Like stars on a winter night in Santander," Ortiz said with a wry laugh. "But I think these men are more interested in her bare breasts."
Excerpted from Dream Helper by Willard Thompson Copyright © 2008 by Willard Thompson. Excerpted by permission.
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