I used to be known as Boy-Who-Talks-With-Animals. This was my nickname, but not my secret name. It was my name before the ship with white wings sailed past our fishing village, Achasta, now called Carmel. The white man gave the name “Carmel” to many places around here—the beautiful valley where we lived, the river winding through it, the bay into which the river flowed, and the mission on the hill that overlooked all.
I am, however, the only one who has the name Old Father gave to me when he baptized me Juan Evangelista José, and wrote this name in the mission’s Book of Records for people ever after to see. Juan means “bearer of good news” and José is one of the names Old Father had when he was a boy—Miguel José.
I should tell you that Old Father also had other names, among them Brother Junípero, Father Serra, and Father President. Yet to most of my people he was known as Old Father. And as it turned out, he was the oldest priest ever to come to work with us. Yet he was able to do the work of three young men, such a power he had inside. And oh how wise he was, as the old are sometimes wise, and gentle, very gentle . . . unless someone tried to hinder his mission work.
I’m not sure old Father knew that I was the one who carried the news to my people when the Spaniards first entered our tribal lands. It was the most exciting thing ever to have happened to me. Yet at the time my father wouldn’t believe me. And afterwards, whenever I had important news to bring, I would worry about who would consider it so—Spaniard or Rumsen?
I am Rumsen. My people are Rumsen.
* * *
It was during the time of the fog moon that the Spaniards first came to Achasta, the time when boys of deer-age—my age—would spend their evenings in the manhouse. The women, then, together with the young girls and small children, would busy themselves in our dome-shaped, one-family rucs made of poles and brush. Because I had ropes, nooses, bows and quivers to make, the evenings passed quickly. With these I would be ready to hunt in the forest once the rain moons were over.
In the afternoons of these same wet and cold days I liked to go by myself to the beach. There I would roam among the sea animals we called “sea bears,” but which the Spaniards called “sea lions,” and some called “sea wolves” because of the way they barked.
The one place I loved best was a spot where these animals played on the beach. It was near the creek the Spaniards named San José, and close also to the rocky point that jutted out into the Big-Sea-Water to form a protected cove.
On this day, the fog was so thick I felt I could reach out and take hold of it with my hands. I had good reason to be glad it was not raining that day as I hoped to catch fish. With the cold and the rains settling in, our people had been talking about leaving our village by the river and moving further inland to where food was more plentiful. Even though fish were scarce during the rain moons, I didn’t want to move. Nor did my father, whose love of the Big-Sea-Water I shared. I reasoned that if I could catch some fish then maybe my mother would stop trying to talk my father into voting with those who wanted to move inland. In our tribe, on matters of importance all had to agree. This was because ours was a nation of fairness.
Try as I had, neither sardines nor mussels were to be found. So, heavy with disappointment, I had started home. I hadn’t gone far when I saw a strange sight. It was so strange I couldn’t tell if it was a dream or if the fog was playing tricks with my eyes. What I saw was as colorful as a rainbow, and although I had seen rainbows in the moonlight, never had I seen one in the fog. Nor had I ever seen a rainbow walking, as this one appeared to be. Swinging and swaying, it was making its way down the long hill to where the river ended its journey from the mountains to the Big-Sea-Water.
Hiding in the tules, I tried to figure out what it possibly could be. When it passed near to where I hid, I shook my head and blinked my eyes. What I seemed to be seeing was a band of eight persons sitting upon the backs of beasts. And the beasts were larger than our largest elk! Whether the riders were men or women I couldn’t be sure. They wore clothes as do our women but they shouted as loudly as our men. About one thing I was certain—they couldn’t be earth people. Perhaps they had come from the moon! Their pale faces made me think so. Wanting to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, I tossed my head so that my hair dashed against my cheeks. Then standing still as a rock and hardly daring to breathe, I listened with my inner ears. Something told me not to be afraid. Was I not Boy-Who-Talks-With-Animals? Was I not kin to every living thing? With my courage increased, I decided to follow the band but keep my distance so as not to be seen.
The strange creatures crossed the river and stopped on the shore near the creek where the water was good. This told me they were people who knew how to pick a good spot to camp. Could it also mean that they were going to live here? If so, would I be able to make friends with them and learn their magic with animals?
What surprised me most was when they removed the burdens from the animals’ backs and turned them loose, the four-legged beasts didn’t run away. Rather they remained close to the moon-skinned strangers, content to nibble away on the thick clumps of grasses.
Of the eight, two puzzled me most. Both wore cloaks as long as our chiefs wear, but of a color as unbeautiful and gray as rain clouds. One of the pair, whom I later learned was Father Juan Crespí, had such a happy face that I called him Man-With-Good-Face. In his hands he held a cross as shining as the sun. When he raised this above his head, the others dropped to their knees. And when he spoke all bowed their heads and listened, including the one who was dressed the best of them all. This person’s clothes were the color of our wild lilacs. On his head was a hat more finely woven than our best-made baskets. And coming out of the hat was a long white feather that must have belonged to a very strange bird. This man, I decided, must be the leader of the group. When he shouted orders, all were quick to obey. All, that is, but Man-With-Good-Face and his companion.
Two of the other men also wore clothes of beautiful flower colors, while the other four wore coats of leather. Those clad in leather carried shields of hide with one arm and with the other they controlled the animals they rode. I thought it would be easier to put an arrow through the coat of a bear than through these men!
I’d become so interested in these strange people that I’d lost track of the time and forgotten I should be home by now. Instead, I watched with amazement as they cut down trees with a few blows of their shining weapons. How very different this was from our way of burning a ring around the base of a tree and then chopping the trunk away with sharp stones.
Still, it was their way with animals that interested me most, and even caused a feeling of envy to sweep over me as I realized I had never even thought of riding on the back of an antelope. When the jealousy had passed, I found myself wishing I could learn from them their secret of how to ride on an animal. Yet I couldn’t just rush up and ask to be shown. To do so would be to go against an Achastan’s training as to the right way to greet strangers. It would be a dishonor to my people and to our nation as a nation of rightness.
Also, my experience with animals had taught me that to rush upon an unknown creature would be to frighten it away. Moreover, even though I was old enough to hunt deer I didn’t have the right to welcome strangers to our tribal lands. To do so was the right of Chief Tatlun who ruled over Achasta—the name of our nation as well as our village. Our nation, however, included four other villages, each with a different name. Yet all of us spoke one language—Rumsen.
Realizing that for now there was nothing more I could do, I determined to head for home. I would tell my parents what I had seen and hope to be allowed to join my elders in deciding whether to welcome these pale strangers or not. The decision would be as we would vote as a nation.
Just as I started to leave I saw two men climb on the long-eared animals and trot back towards the pine ridge. Perhaps they were scouts going to get the rest of their party! Maybe they did have women and children! With this my heart filled with hope that there would be young men my own age with whom I could make friends.
Before leaving I noticed that those who had stayed behind were looking out to our little bay. And what they were seeing was causing them to shake their heads and wrinkle their brows. I wondered what it was about our bay that seemed to trouble them.
I also wondered if these unearthly men could be trusted. From seeing how they handled their animals, I thought so. If their animals trusted them, maybe we could too. Among our own tribe I had noted that when persons were afraid or harsh around animals, the animals would shy away from them. But when persons were gentle and without fear they could make friends among birds and beasts. Since the animals these men handled made no attempt to run away, I told myself the men must be trustworthy.
Believing this, I almost stepped out from my hiding place, and would have except something inside warned me not to. So, crawling away on all fours I went a safe distance, and then stood up and ran, ran, ran to carry back the news.
It didn’t take me long to reach home. There was not a young man in our village who could outrun me.
When I saw that my family had already eaten the evening meal, I felt sorry I was late and would have to go to bed hungry. Nor had I counted on my mother being angry, especially since I brought such unusual news. What a disappointment that instead of marveling at what I had seen she felt my forehead and ordered me to lie down on the tule mat in front of the fire and wrap myself in my rabbit-skin lemme.
Now I wished I had remained at the strangers’ camp! If the new men were kind enough to care for their four-legged creatures, surely they would have treated me better than my own mother was now treating me. I told myself I would run back to the strangers at the first opportunity.
“Hummingbird-Pretty-Girl,” my mother called to my sister, using her nickname. “Go get Satas,” she told her, referring to my father. Of course my sister and I didn’t call him this as it was his private name.
My mother, in the meantime, took her wooden tongs and carefully lifted several hot stones from the fire that burned in the center of our ruc. These she dropped into a cooking basket full of water. “Zizz! Zizz!” the water bubbled, and from which she made the bitter herb tea that cures the sickness that gives one bad dreams. I knew I would have to take my medicine.
As soon as Father stepped inside our hut, and even before he had time to sit, my mother blurted out: “Our son returns to say he saw men with faces the color of the moon. They rode upon the backs of beasts.”
With this he turned towards me, and looking angry as a bear when attacked, he growled, “If you tell such a lie, no one will ever believe you.” He said this because among my people to speak the truth was of utmost importance. I was so ashamed of being accused of telling a lie that my voice shook as I tried to defend myself.
“It is the truth I speak.”
“Why make excuses?” he asked. “Everyone knows fish are scarce now.” With this he folded his arms tightly in front of his chest, and I knew he was not likely to change his mind.
I had counted on my father convincing Chief Tatlun, who was his brother, that we should extend friendship to the strangers. But my father wouldn’t believe me, not even when I explained the way the men had looked, and how they managed their animals so well that they even persuaded them to carry their burdens.
“Lies! Lies! Lies!” Father shouted, and so loudly I was afraid the men in the meeting house would hear him.
“Shush! Shush!” my mother said, putting a finger to her lips.
“Don’t shush me, Otilia.” (This was her private name.) Father now was sputtering like the water in the cooking basket.
Suddenly my face felt very warm. As my mother poured some of the bitter tea into an abalone shell and handed it to me to drink, fear was in her eyes.
“Satas, can you not see he is sick?” she asked my father. “He does not lie. He is not in his right mind!”
With this my father wrinkled his brows and let his arms fall to his sides. “Perhaps,” he said and turned to go. “I shall vote with the others,” he called from the doorway. “You are right. We should go where there is more food. The boy suffers from hunger.”
“No, no!” I cried out. But there was no use. He didn’t even look back.
I pulled my lemme over my face. I needed to think about how I could return to the strangers’ camp.
When dawn broke I saw how difficult it was going to be, for I wasn’t even permitted to go to the river and bathe—a morning ritual we seldom escaped. Someone stood over me all morning ready to warn my mother if I wandered out. I could tell from the fear on her face she was afraid I was going to die.
When the sun was directly over the smoke-hole of our ruc, I heard voices coming from the meeting house. I begged Hummingbird-Pretty-Girl to see what was happening. I could tell from the look on her face that she too was curious. When I promised that I wouldn’t leave, she agreed to go see what was happening.
When she returned, it was to tell me that a member of the Locuyustans, who lived to the north near Big Bay, had come into camp with a story similar to mine. My father, she said, wished to talk to me.
“Now they will have to believe me,” I thought.
The Achastans had often argued with the Locuyustans over fishing rights to Big Bay, which was not far from our fishing village. They had their own river that flowed in the middle of the bay, as we had ours. But since we lived as far south of Big Bay as they lived north of it, we both claimed the right to fish in the deep waters by the Point of the Pines.
At first I thought my village might not listen to the Locuyustan because of past differences. But on second thought I realized that even though we might not get along with the big group that doesn’t mean we dislike the individual. Sometimes, for one reason or another, a tribal person will join another clan. What can make this difficult is the different languages and dialects spoken by different clans.
Fortunately, the Locuyustan made himself understood as he explained that pale-skinned men riding immense beasts were camped near Big Bay. He related how his own tribe’s women had been so afraid of the strangers that they had abandoned a village only recently built when fleas had driven them from their former rucs. He explained they now preferred the fleas to living near the men with the frightening white skin.
“Were there this many?” I asked, holding up eight fingers. The Locuyustan nodded. “Equal,” he said. “But next day more came, many more. We watched from where we hid!”
“The men wore clothes?” I asked this because our men, even the old ones, usually went naked except in cold weather.
The Locuyustan held up two fingers and pointed to Hummingbird-Pretty-Girl’s dress. “Two men were dressed like women,” he said.
My feet danced up and down. I was happy because I knew he, too, had seen the same ones I had. When I stopped to catch my breath, he told me something that made me more anxious than ever to revisit the creek campsite. He told me they not only rode the animals with the long ears—the ones I had seen—but some of the men rode beautiful four-legged beasts with hair falling from their necks so long it rippled in the sea breeze, and with tails that trailed the ground. The leader, he said—the man who wore the hat with the white feather—yon a fog had rolled in and covered the campsite. This made it possible to move in close to the strangers without being seen.
“Let Boy-Who-Talks-With-Animals lead the way,” Chief Tatlun commanded.
Behind the Chief and myself came the eleven others chosen for the welcoming. There was nothing to be afraid of, I told myself. There were so many more of us than them. Later I would learn there were only seventy in their entire party.
When we approached them, the leader in the purple cloak walked out first. Behind him came Man-With-Good-Face holding his cross high in the air. Chief Tatlun signaled for the strangers to stop. Man-With-Good-Face walked out alone, beckoning for our chief to join him. Then Chief Tatlun made a speech. When this was done, Man-With-Good-Face gave each one of us some colorful beads. He then turned to a young boy of about my age and motioned for him to come forward and talk to our group.
I could see that the boy had hair, eyes, and skin like mine, but he could not make us understand him. Then, to my surprise, Chief Tatlun told me to see if I could talk with this blood brother who evidently was traveling with the strangers. I walked up and stood beside him. He ran his fingers quickly up his outstretched arm. I interpreted this to mean that they had walked here from the south. I couldn’t be sure I understood him correctly, however, since I’d seen them approach our river from the north. He insisted, however, that they had traveled from the south.
Putting his fingers in his mouth, he indicated they were hungry! He pointed to the brown pelicans skimming between the mounting waves. I understood that this was what they had been eating. When I told Chief Tatlun that I thought he referred to the as, (our word for these birds,) he told me to tell them we would return at the next sun with deer meat.
“We go,” Chief Tatlun said.
I wanted to remain with my new-found friend and ask him why he and the four other young men who looked like us did not ride on the backs of animals. I had noticed only the white men rode. But there was not time for him to answer me.
The following sun-up we bathed in the lagoon, had our morning meal, and returned to the campsite near the creek. We gave Man-With-Good-Face a good supply of pine nuts and deer meat. We had held back only enough food to last us for the journey we would soon take into the sierra. There we would have food enough to last until the new clover would grow in our warm-weather valley, and the salmon would swim up our river from the sea.
“The Giver-of-Life,” Chief Tatlun reminded us, “has always been good to the Achastans.”
The white men were grateful for our gifts of food. In return Man-With-Good-Face rewarded us with more beads and with beautiful cloth, and with which we were pleased. I was sorry Chief Tatlun didn’t remain to talk with them, but I understood he was embarrassed he couldn’t speak the white man’s language.
Now that we had given away most of our food supply, there was nothing we could do but move on to our cold-weather campground. And so, at sunrise, we abandoned our village.
In leaving I couldn’t help worrying about the newcomers, especially my five young blood brothers. I hoped they would survive the rain moons when food was always scarce at Achasta by the sea.
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