The fury of the storm seemed to be a warning. The few who still called themselves the People of the Oaks whispered that the flooding was the gods’ anger because they had left their villages and their traditional ways to dwell among the padres at Mission San Miguel Arcángel. But others argued not. For them the rain was a blessing from the true God.
“Let the rains come,” a young woman prayed as she lay waiting for her next birthing pain. “Let us be safe this night.” She was a neophyte, a baptized Indian with a name given to her by the padres and she felt afraid in this new place. But no travelers would arrive seeking hospitality in this weather. Tonight El Camino Real was flooded, the thin wagon track that followed the rivers and valleys from the border of New Spain, north to the Missions of Alta California. “Let the rains come,” she repeated. “Let our fields and our hearts be renewed.”
Her heart was one with the forces raging outside her walls, ancient winds whipping through the olive grove, ripping off branches and pitching them into the north wall of the dormitory. The sound of singers and cantors in the nearby church were muted as whorls of rain lashed the clay-tiled roofs, windows, and rough-hewn doors.
Alfonsa lay inside the adobe room assigned to her husband, Domingo. Restlessly, she stirred in her birthing bed, feeling its sturdy willow frame flex beneath her. A fragrant layer of pine needles sent out a sweet fragrance, sap freed by a layer of heated rocks in the trench beneath her. She breathed deeply and her mind saw the forest where, a few days earlier, she had walked from sunrise to sunset to gather pine boughs. Domingo had built the bed in the way of her ancestors to please her, a deep rectangular trench dug into in the hard-packed adobe floor holding five rocks still hot from the fire. His mother bound the frame with woven tule grass to protect the skin from the heat. Alfonsa now rested safely above the half-buried stones and waited.
“It is good, ’mingo,” she whispered, and her heart swelled with gratitude. She longed to tell him this, but he was not present. His mother had chased him from the room because the old taboos did not allow him to take part in the birth. The two were both at evening service, along with every other neophyte, and she was alone.
A basket of pine nuts lay nearby, a gift he had brought so she would have strength for her ordeal. She glanced at the basket, but her body was filled with anticipation, not hunger—a thing her husband would not understand because his belly was never full, even after he had taken his meal. Alone but unafraid, she bit down on an olive twig to blunt her moan from the world outside. “The rain is God’s gift,” she whispered through cracked lips. “Our prayers are heard.”
Another pain engulfed her. She shut her eyes, bit into the twig, and tried to hold onto yesterday’s memory when Padre Juan Martin had stood in the courtyard, his hands raised to the sky as a warm breeze wafted his robe like the wings of a dove. Strong and fervent, his voice swelled to the cloudless sky as he led his people in prayer for rain. Rain so that there would be more wheat in the fields and vegetables in the gardens. Food for the escolte, the Spanish soldiers protecting the
Food for the padres and their guests. Grain to trade to the other Missions and
to send to the governor for taxes. And if there was any left, food for the neophytes, for her and her baby soon to be born.
The summer heat had been intense, the rain sparse, but the Spanish Governor de Solá had levied extra taxes in the form of wine and cattle hides. Many workers died in the latest round of hunger and typhoid, leaving fewer to gather the crops. She did not complain like some of the others who groused under their breath about the six hours of labor required of them—even though the padres worked as hard as any of them—but drought made things harder. Her belly, big with baby, made drawing water difficult; carrying the burden basket pulled down her shoulders and strained her back with the pressure of the strap. This is why she knew God had sent the rain for her, and just in time.
“Aiiiyaah.” Another pain, this one harder. Her lips moved in the prayer of the Holy Mother who had given birth in a room no bigger than her own. Alfonsa swallowed her sob. “Hail Mary, mother of God . . .” She repeated the prayer that brought her strength in trial. Surely the Holy Virgin had shown courage at the birth of her son. New life comes—blessing and pain.
Across the room, the shadowy figure of an old woman swayed in prayer. Not the Latin chant of the padres and the choir, but in rhythm with the ancient people: prayers to the sun, moon, rain, golden eagle, as they had been prayed in the village of the spirit woman’s childhood. Tonight, fire shadows danced on the wall. From a standing position, her old body swayed back and forth, translucent in the light of the flickering firelight, her ancient bones limber from a lifetime of sitting upon the earth. With almost every sway her forehead brushed the wall in front of her, allowing crushed limestone from the wall to mottle in the deep furrows of her forehead. Streaks of white caught in the strands of her hair, making her seem even grayer than the day she arrived. Her hair was long then, but she had singed it short with firebrands to show she mourned the loss of the old ways.
“Grandmother,” Alfonsa whispered, “you’ve come.” NenE’—the name the people called the mother of her mother. NenE’, the storyteller. In her dream, Grandmother told about T’e Lxo, the thunder. T’e Lxo roared from the sky in a dance with the lightning, and afterwards it was here, over this chosen valley and over her people, the stars would spread their blanket when the world was washed clean and the streams refilled.
Back and forth the old woman rocked. Brish Brish. Alfonsa knew she imagined it, so soft a sound, so soft a color, yet both stirred something deep inside her, a feeling that the old ways would never totally disappear. Grandmother was only here in spirit. She would be no help with the coming baby, but someone would arrive—maybe sooner, maybe later—when the common prayers in the church ended and the final meal of the day had been distributed.
A knotted rosary lay limp in Alfonsa’s hand. Domingo had left her to her labor, but she listened for his footstep. Did not
wipe Mary’s brow at the birthing of their son? Ride the contraction as a wave, the older mothers told her. But
what did that mean?
Outside, the huge bells tolled against the crashing of the storm. Lightning flashed nearby, filling her room while thunder soon followed. A strong gust of wind blew through the cracks around the door, cooling her skin. Smoke stung her eyes as the intrusive wind fingered the fire in the corner.
She returned her gaze to Grandmother, who stood motionless, listening to the song of the wind. Did the wind tell the old one that her granddaughter would have a blessed and strong grandchild? In the woman’s wrinkled face and sad eyes, strange secrets remained hidden from human understanding. Grandmother would know the meaning of the images that came during Alfonsa’s own sleep, strange words that woke her when she cried out, sometimes with a few human words, but sometimes with the words of otherworld spirits. She wondered about the spirit world the elders no longer talked of, but it would do no good to ask. When she was a child she had questioned Padre Juan Cabot about them and he said the dead do not come back to the living. She left it at that. Padre should know these things, yet the belief did not leave her.
She felt the power of the river carrying her and her unborn child. In a moment of release from fierce pain, Alfonsa raised her arms. “My people,” she sighed.
Another vision, one in which she gazed down from the starry blanket into the valley. She saw her people by the river, milling among their huts of tule grass bundled together with bark strips. So small, so simple. She found herself wailing in her dreaming. “Why can’t I bring my baby into this world in a hut like my grandmother’s? In my people’s village? With the smell of grass and bark. With the songs of my people. Under the stars as T’e Lxo shouts from the sky.”
Grandmother continued to rock on her toes and Alfonsa understood what was deep inside the old one’s heart—fear. Fear for the baby about to be born.
“God help us,” she whispered, her throat dry.
She managed a swallow of water from her drinking vessel, an abalone shell carried from the sandy beaches to the west. Suddenly the pungent scent of burning sage chased the sour smell of sweat and rancid grease from the tight, closed room. For this she was grateful, but not for the pagan smoke that would bring the wrath of Padre Martin upon them. She rose on her elbow and tried to fan the air away before the scent embedded itself in her hair and her skin.
“No, Grandmother, you must not. Padre says these things are of the devil. Superstition. You mustn’t.” Before she could prevent it, the old shadow woman managed to smudge her belly and her breasts, up to her chin with the black soot, her chants summoning the ancient spirits to provide for a strong baby, a safe birth. Spirits the old woman summoned were powerful. Alfonsa felt her body relaxing under the sweet cleansing. A moment later Grandmother’s spirit faded and the room was empty.
A small sound issued from the doorway. It was Oxwe’t, the mother of her husband, returning from the church. The shadowy image of Grandmother faded into darkness and the room was empty again except for the two of them. The new arrival wrinkled her nose and glanced around. A faint smile flickered over her customary frown.
Alfonsa felt the need to talk.
“Oxwe’t, this room is built with skill and hard work. Your son honors us with his devotion.” As she expected, the woman slipped to the floor without speaking. Domingo had explained to the padres that no Yokut woman would speak to her son’s wife, not even if they passed in the field, but his pleading was dismissed like a mosquito’s buzz. Padre claimed the old taboos were pagan. God required a man’s wife to care for his aging mother.
His mother made a bed in the corner of the small room and said nothing unless her son asked a question of her.
The scent of sage filled the small room with promise. One after another, several families had lived in this room and baptized it with their odors, their greases, sicknesses and deaths. The odors lingered after the families departed. She was happy with the sage that now cleansed her nostrils, willing to risk discovery of the pagan ritual.
Soon her trial would be over and Domingo would be at her side. He worked full days in the burning sun, forming adobe tiles and bricks. On each, he marked a small “x,” his own mark before the clay dried. Many others worked with him so that in the summer season several thousand “x” tiles piled up in the courtyard. He used some of his handiwork to build tight adobe rooms like the one Padre had given them to use.
Once the baby comes, I will scrub this room, she vowed. With wild soap and lime it will be made new again, just as the ones Domingo builds now.
A new cramp gripped her and she allowed her thoughts to flow into her calm place. Mercifully, she drifted into darkness.
When she awoke, the weight of the storm had broken. Outside, a clay tile torn loose in the wind dropped onto the ground—most likely a weak tile made by one of the others; her husband’s tiles were strong as the oak limbs they were formed on. As strong as God, whose will must be obeyed.
Moments later she felt pressure building between her legs and raised her head, her body rigid. The pain was increasing, and with it the pressure to push. At her keening sob, one of the neophyte women rushed in. She bent and saw the dark place where the baby pressed. She turned toward the door and called, “Ayeeee. It is time.”
Señora Marcia, the wife of one of the soldiers, slipped into the room, her crisp black skirt crackling against the quick tap-taps of her leather shoes. A neophyte woman followed carrying a cooking basket of steaming water with a hot rock inside, which her practiced hands swirled to keep the red-hot rock from burning through the basket.
Yes, it was time. She felt the child slipping from inside her. In her dream, white mist covered the canyon, a bright and swirling whirlpool. Her spirit wanted to enter, but the mewling made her hesitate, a sound so faint that she wasn’t sure her ears could be trusted. She opened her eyes and saw hands cradling a tiny bundle. Boy or girl it didn’t matter, only that she hold it before the angels came to take it to Heaven, for surely it was too tiny to live.
The baby’s cry was pitiful, the bleating of a goat. She felt an ache of another kind when she heard Señora whisper, “Bring the Padre.”