Humqaq, pt. 7

Many years later, the narrator has forgotten about Sam the Chumash and his strange encounter in Jalama but as life piles on complications, the narrator is eventually reminded of what he said so long ago. Don’t miss next week’s finale. 

Humqaq, part 7

By Jeff McElroy

Many years passed. A few decades, actually. Time and progress erased the luster of Sam’s words from my mind, though they were never forgotten. Inland responsibilities kept me from my beloved coast for great stretches of time, and Jalama gradually became a wistful, nostalgic memory. The abalone shell sifted to the bottom of a kitchen drawer along with old keys and batteries and flashlights. My writing was demoted to the status of hobby or something else that never paid any bills. I moved further inland for more affordable housing, though my soul always clamored for the mists of the coast.

After my divorce I found myself working two jobs, and the small hours of the night became my only time to write, or at least to try to make myself believe that I was writing. My ex-wife had tried to believe that I was writing as well. For twenty years she worked two jobs, always with the hopes that my writing would take off. Now, I often found myself wandering about the internet late at night, cultivating my mind with little trinkets of disconnected information that floated about in cyberspace like the flotsam of a recently sunken ship. For no good reason at all, the name John Peabody Harrington popped up in my head one lonesome night, and I typed his name into the computer.

The sepia portrait that faced me in my darkened study, his wild eyes beaming a secret from the ether, burned my heart a little, like whisky or love. He appeared to be around my age at the time of the photograph; in some nether region of mid-life. Unlike my gray and drooping eyes, however, the gloaming in his eyes spoke of some exuberant treasure hidden in his heart. Though every manner of his dress and the fashion of his hair denoted the definitive stuffy academic, his eyes suggested otherwise. 

I became transfixed by his image, and my hands could not direct the mouse fast enough as I scrolled down page after page of his biography. Born in Santa Barbara, California, 1884 – attended Stanford University – continued his studies in Leipzig, Germany – returned to California – began studying the languages of California Indian tribes such as the Mojave and the Chumash – got married – began spending more and more time in the field, studying such tribes as the Yuma, the Mohave, and the Chumash – divorces five years later, wife claims he is a genius married to another woman named Work – recognized as a preeminent anthropologist – begins to cut off all social contacts – refuses to own a phone – repeatedly changes his address – begins amassing pages and pages of writings and recordings which can best be measured in the tons – despite his genius, he neglects simple tasks such as returning correspondence and keeping his bills in order – loses favor with the academic community due to his unorthodox methods of transmitting his data – dies in 1961. I hadn’t been this excited in a long time. While his biography stated the facts with black letters on a white screen, I knew the colors of his cognitions. I knew the aromas he’d inhaled, of sage and manzanita and salt-air mixed with the urine sap of eucalyptus trees bowing into the coastal fog. I immediately knew the wind that had rubbed his cheekbones raw at Jalama, and the sun that had blistered his Northern European skin. I imagined the still, dusty rooms he’d sat in, listening to the dying languages of the Chumash, spoken by Sam’s grandmother, Qilikutayiwit. I began to imagine the secrets he’d learned; the ones that forever estranged him from the society to which he was expected to belong. 


A few more years passed. I’d set Mr. Harrington’s biography page as a favorite on my web browser, and I clicked on it every now and then. The passion he’d inspired in me, like all my passions, came and went in the wee hours of the night, but every morning the sunlight extinguished my dreams as I marched to my office in pursuit of the dollar. I’d somehow accumulated quite a set of bills during my married life, and I’d lost sight of any horizon of paying them off completely. Through it all, I tried to treat everyone I encountered with the respect and patience I’d learned from the ocean so many years ago. It was on a coffee break at work, my tie thrown over my shoulder as I read the paper, that the story caught my eye. The headline read: NASA TO LAUNCH COMMERCIAL ROCKET AT VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE IN LOMPOC, CALIFORNIA. I read on. Despite opposition from environmentalists and Chumash tribal leaders, Vandenberg had gone forward with its plans to build a spaceport. The purpose of the first launch was to take the cremated remains, mostly of rich, Japanese businessmen, into outer space to fulfill their final wishes. The cost for these rites was speculated to be in the millions for one body. There were two photographs. One was of the protesters with their bobbing signs and painted faces. The other was of the Japanese bereaved that had come to Vandenberg to watch their relatives blasted into the cosmos. 

*Photos by Josh Gill

To start from the beginning or catch an installment you missed:

Humqaq pt. 1

Humqaq pt. 2

Humqaq pt. 3

Humqaq pt. 4

Humqaq pt. 5

Humqaq pt. 6

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