Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Walk to the Mission

The following is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress called An American History.

I was not physically fit.  I spent most of my time reading and grading papers, not exercising or lifting weights, so the task of carrying a fully grown Indian proved exceedingly difficult for me.  It was a shame, because the surrounding country, the landscape through which I was walking, was very beautiful.  Had circumstances been different, I think I would have been having the time of my life.

I was witnessing a landscape that was lost in my time.  It was a pre-developed Orange County.  I was sure we were walking along the route of what would become the Interstate 5 freeway.  Here, in this time, it was only hills and trees and birds and brush.  How easily, I thought, we come to accept the reality of the present as the way things have always been.  The day was lovely, with a clear blue sky and the air so clean and pure.  I didn't know air could be so clean.  Instead of the smell of exhaust from cars, there was the smell of sage and live oak and earth.

The Indian on my shoulders shifted and made a low moaning noise, as he slowly regained consciousness.  The blood from his side had saturated my ridiculous leather shirt.  Suddenly, he sprang from my shoulders, shouting in his native language.  It was, like this landscape, a lost language, a tongue not heard for nearly a century.  What dies, I thought, when a language dies?

It struck me, even in the chaos of that moment, that one task I could do would be to transcribe and preserve the native tongue of this dying Indian.

"Whoa there, Injun!" said William Wolfskill, speaking as one might address a horse, "Hold it right there!"

The trapper aimed his rifle squarely at the Indian, who was now clutching his wounded side.

"Hold him!" Wolfskill shouted to me, and I felt the weight of a moral dilemma.  I did not want to hold this Indian.  I wanted only to talk to him, to learn from him, perhaps even to help him escape from this violent man with the rifle.  Before I had time to react, Wolfskill had bound the Indian's hands with rope.

"Now, walk!" Wolfskill shouted, "We have far to go."

Quietly, sullenly, we continued our journey to the Mission.  My mind was filled with a rising anger, an anger reflected in the eyes of the Indian when he looked at me.  To him, I was just another Indian hunter, another enemy.  I looked at him with eyes of compassion.  I wanted desperately to cut his bonds, to set him free, but, being unarmed, I felt powerless.

On we walked, along the banks of a mighty river.  I did not remember a mighty river being in Orange County.  But then I suddenly realized--this is the Santa Ana River!  In my time, the Santa Ana River was an ugly cement channel with a trickle of water.  It was a sad, tamed river, like the Indian.  A river forced by violence to follow a certain path.  But here, in the "Golden Age" of California, the river was still wild.

As nightfall approached, we finally came to the Mission.  I was now afraid of what I might find.  I had an ominous feeling that the story of the Missions I'd heard as a tourist were a myth--that the reality was much darker, darker than anyone in my time could even imagine.  Why would this Indian run away?  And why would Father Serra hire a man like Wolfskill to force him back?

As we approached the Mission grounds, I began to understand.  Under the darkening sky, I could see the outlines of hundreds of Indians stooped among fields of crops.  They looked like the slaves of the old south, toiling in the fields.  In the midst of the slaves, a Spanish soldier sat atop a horse, holding a rifle in one hand and a whip in the other.  Could this be true?  Was this Mission like a slave plantation?

Inside a building nearby, I could hear a woman screaming.

"What's that?!" I asked Wolfskill.

The wounded Indian shouted angry words.

"Probably one of Portola's men having some fun with a squaw," Wolfsklll replied, nonchalantly.

"A soldier is raping an Indian?!"

"Rape?" he replied, "Ha!  It's not rape if it's an Injun."

I wanted to throw up.  I wanted to leave.  I felt I had wandered into one of the circles of Dante's hell, where slavery, violence, and rape were common.  This was not the version of the Mission I'd been told.  Again, my fingers touched my navigational wristband.  I could, if I wanted to, pop out of this hellish place.  But something stopped me.

It was a feeling I'd had when I came home from college nearly ten years ago, when I had my first mental breakdown.  I'd gone through a crisis of faith where, because of what I'd learned in college, I could no longer believe in the Christianity of my youth.  My whole inner world had fallen apart.  I was a broken young man.

However, in the midst of this hell, I discovered writing.  Writing became, for me, a path through hell.  The only way out is in, I remember writing as a younger man.  The only way to transcend the horror is to face it clear-eyed and fearless, pen in hand, writing down the things you see, like Dante.  And so, on I walked, with bloodied shirt and the screams of a raped woman echoing in my ears.  On I walked into this hell, to tell of the things I saw.

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