Have you been holding your breath waiting to hear what Sam the Native American has to say for himself? Here we learn that it has something to do with chosen souls and a spirituality our narrator has never before considered. But what is he to do remains the question.
Humqaq, pt. 6
By Jeff McElroy
I sat in my chair and directed him to sit atop my ice chest. Now that we were seated, he seemed less imposing. He lit a cigarette and I lit what was left of my cigar. We smoked in a silence that was, strangely, not uncomfortable. He seemed to be listening to the wind that had calmed only a little. At times, he seemed to be gathering a message in the wind, listening to a whisper. Against my better judgment, I passed my whisky across the flames and he drank two deep draughts. He handed it back and I finished what was left. I threw two logs on and they caught quickly. Very slowly, he began to talk:
“Almost 100 years ago, a white man named John Peabody Harrington arrived here on this shore. He was a professor. He wanted to study my people. But nobody wanted to talk to him. My people were not pleased with the white man. There aren’t many Chumash left. The Catholic Church saw to that.”
Sam shook his hand in the air in dismissal.
“My great-grandmother, bless her heart, was the only one with enough kindness in her spirit to take him in. Her name was Qilikutayiwit. Her Christian name, the one branded on her like cattle, was Maria Solares. She was a great woman, wise enough to understand that our culture could survive only through the stories passed down amongst the generations. She believed Mr. Harrington was sent to preserve our story.”
Sam sat back and pulled a white pipe from his jacket. Small inlaid stones glittered around the bowl.
“Whalebone,” he said, pointing to the pipe, then up the coast. “A whale washed up on the shore before I was born.”
From a small baggy he pulled a pinch of herb and nestled it into the bowl. He passed the pipe to me. I shielded myself from the wind, lit the weed, and drew deeply. It tasted familiar and foreign at the same time. I passed the pipe to him and he smoked.
The weed instantly swirled my consciousness and set me at ease. Now the wind seemed to animate everything uniformly, as if everything, from a strand of my hair to the yucca plants on the hill, was dancing to the same song. I wanted to giggle, but instead sat back and said, “Good stuff.” He smiled and carried on, but I was having a hard time following the meaning of his words on account of the whisky combining with he weed.
“This Harrington, he lived in a small room of my great-grandmother’s house for several years. He spoke to her every day, and recorded her voice. He filled hundreds of notebooks. They came to be friends.”
I was trying to focus on Sam’s words, but I was also listening to the wind, discerning snippets of voices and chants. Sam’s story came through in waves—
“…Harrington wandered the sands…never organized his work…understood the sacredness of our rituals…may have driven him mad…my great-grandmother called him a Receiver…”
Sam was staring at me from across the fire. I couldn’t tell how long he’d been silent. He looked at me with great seriousness and said, “You, too, are a Receiver.”
I sort of sat up using my arms behind me and shook my head.
“What is a Receiver?”
“Someone with the ability to feel the energy of the Great Spirit.”
“What’re you talking about, man?”
Sam stood up and paced around the fire.
“She told me you would come, my great-grandmother. She told me that a young white man would come alone to the site of Humqaq, and that I would know him when I saw his eyes.”
“Humqaq?” I asked. “You mean, like, the gateway at Point Conception? I read about that today. I don’t know about that Receiver stuff, dude. I’m just up here to surf.”
“She said that he would be a writer, a scribe, like Mr. Harrington. Are you not a writer?”
“Well, yes. Amongst other things. I mean, I’ve published a few things here and there, so, yes, I’m a writer.”
I felt embarrassed. Naked. Exposed somehow.
“And she said you would ride a strange tomol,” Sam said.
“It’s the Chumash word for canoe.”
I glanced at my surfboards beneath the truck.
“And have you not felt the presence of the Great Spirit since you arrived here on these shores?”
“Well…maybe. Something. I felt something.”
“Listen to this story. It is the story I was instructed to read to you upon making your acquaintance.”
He pulled a tattered piece of paper from his pocket.
“This is the story as told by my great-grandmother to Mr. Harrington. Listen…”
As he spoke, my attention strangely crystallized, as if his words were being transferred directly from his brain to mine…
The soul goes first to Point Conception, which is a wild and stormy place. It was called Humqaq, and there was no village there. In ancient times no one ever went near Humqaq. They only went there to make sacrifices at a great Shawil. There is a place at Humqaq below the cliff that can only be reached by rope, and there is a pool of water there like a basin, into which fresh water continually drips. And there in the stone can be seen the footprints of women and children. There the spirit of the dead bathes and paints itself. Then it sees a light to the westward and goes toward it through the air, and thus reaches the land of Shimilaqsha.
Sometimes in the evening people at La Quemada village would see a soul passing by on its way to Point Conception. Sometimes these were the souls of people who had died, but sometimes they were souls that had temporarily left the body. The people of La Quemada would motion with their hands at the soul and tell it to return, to go back east, and they would clap their hands. Sometimes the soul would respond and turn back, but other times it would simply swerve a little from its course and continue on to Shimilaqsha. When the people of La Quemada saw the soul it shone like a light, and it left a blue trail behind it.
A short time after the soul passed La Quemada the people there would hear a report like a distant cannon shot, and know that that was the sound of the closing of the gate of Shimilaqsha as the soul entered. Then the soul passes through three lands in the world to the west to encounter the trial of the clashing rocks.
Once past the clashing rocks the soul comes to a place where there are two gigantic qaq, ravens, perched on each side of the trail, and who each peck out an eye as the soul goes by. But there are many golden poppies growing there in the ravine and the soul quickly picks two of these and inserts them in each eye-socket and so is able to see again immediately. When the soul finally gets to Shimilaqsha it is given eyes made of blue abalone.
When he finished the story, I looked down at the abalone shell I’d been rubbing with my thumb. Suddenly, the soft prisms of its flesh reminded me of the retina of a sheep’s eye I had once dissected in a high school biology class. Everything about it reminded me of the sheep’s retina, from its convex shape to its creamy, pink luster. I thought about the thudding booms I’d heard earlier coming from Point Conception. And I thought about the hundreds of people I thought I’d seen before wiping out on that wave. Sam was slowly nodding his head and smiling at me as if he knew that I understood.
I told him about my vision. I asked him why those souls I’d seen were still standing on the beach instead of departing through the Western Gate. “Because those are the ones never allowed the proper Chumash burial,” he said. “Those are the ones who died in the clutches of the evil Catholic Church. Did you know that Father Junipero Serra is a Satan figure to my people? When he came to establish the California Missions he decimated our population, our culture, and our traditions. We were given no choice but to convert to Christianity. If we did not, there was no limit to what the missionaries could do, but it always involved torture, rape, and ultimately, death. Those women, children, and men you saw on the beach today are condemned to endless traversals of this lonely place. They are the cause of the wind. It is akin, I believe, to Christianity’s notion of purgatory.”
We sat for a while and listened to the wind. Now that my mind was not fighting the possibility of deciphering voices in the wind, they came through quite clearly, though in the Chumash language I did not understand.
“What am I to do?” I asked.
“I am not sure. But my grandmother was never mistaken in her prophecies, and she spoke of your coming with great certainty. On her deathbed she charged me with this very task — to tell you these stories I’ve told you tonight, and to give you the abalone shell. My work is done, and I must go.”
He stood up and began to walk away into the shadows, but before he disappeared I called to him.
“Sam,” I said. “Wait.”
He was gone.
*Photos by Josh Gill
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