After last week’s little Native American history lesson (fact or fiction?), our narrator returns to the campsite to a bottle of whiskey and more research into the Chumash tribe. Once again, he isn’t alone for long.
Humqaq, part 5
By Jeff McElroy
I returned to the campsite just as the sun was squashing into the horizon. It was very cold, more like winter than autumn, so I got the fire started right away. I was still the only camper at Jalama. I suppose I could have headed home since the waves seemed to have gone flat, and those that made it to the coast were disorganized and hacked to pieces by the wind that had swung back around to onshore. The old feeling of being watched had returned, but I was getting used to it. Even when I’d been at the Chumash Center I’d been overcome by the feeling that I had to get back to Jalama. It was as if I was keeping people waiting; the kind of people who didn’t like to be made to wait. I balanced an open can of chili on the grill of the fire pit, cracked a beer, lit a cigar, and pulled up a foldout chair alongside the fire. I pulled the pages I’d printed out of my back pocket and began reading where I’d left off. Apparently, there had been a protest in this area back in the 1970s by the Chumash. An oil pipeline had been proposed that would cross the exact site at Point Conception considered sacred. The oil companies had argued that there was no evidence of “Humqaq” being regarded as sacred, and that it had been a manifestation of extreme environmentalists in their efforts to keep the coast unfettered.
The article was long, and it left the story of Humqaq to describe several other areas of Native American concern. I ate my chili, holding the pages tightly since the wind had oscillated up to a hum as it whipped and curled around the contours of my truck. Unlike the wind of the morning warm and laden with inland aromas, this wind was undoubtedly from the north, the Arctic, the first breath of an impending winter storm. I pulled on another long-sleeve shirt, a sweatshirt, and my old sheep’s wool-lined Levi jacket. With my collar up over my ears and my chair up close to the fire, I brought out my stash of whisky and had a few nips to keep warm.
As I settled in by the fire to read the printed pages, the whisky flooded my veins with warmth and my entire body relaxed. By this point, my silent observers were like my audience—my choragus. I felt as though I were being cheered on and applauded by a ghastly senate. The hum of the wind was replaced by the fabled moan as it played through the rigging of my terrestrial ship, and its mournful song was my lullaby. Drifting to sleep, the last thing my sagging eyes saw but did not record must have been the flurry of paper as the wind stole the pages from my grasp and carried them into the night like mad butterflies.
My whisky sleep was deep and heavy. I must’ve had a nightmare because I woke up feeling evil all around me. The fire had calmed to nothing more than a glow of embers like the smoldering fall of an empire as viewed from outer space. Little pockets of orange life winked lazily before extinguishing to darkness. The death of the fire announced the birth of the stars overhead, also winking and dying.
I hurried from the chair to my tailgate, expecting something to grab me from beneath my truck. Even with the camper shell closed and all the blankets pulled up over my head, I shivered and shook. I felt to have woken from one bad dream into another nightmare. The wind pushed my truck in a human manner, as if a hundred ratty children with caves for eyes had rallied around me and found sport in rocking me back and forth. It was in this state that I either fell asleep or remained catatonic and hallucinating, I don’t know which.
The moan of the wind was on the cusp of intelligibility; a morose language of long, deep, tonal vowels piped from the hollow lungs of the dead. The longer I listened to this language, searching for meaning systems, the stronger the image became in my head of a billion rotted lungs, still partially clothed in brown, tattered flesh, all harmonizing with the haunting resonance of the lowest notes of a pipe organ in a gothic cathedral. And that was when I realized what or who these voices belonged to. They were the voices of the dead.
I heard something like the clap of distant artillery fire out at sea. It could have been some kind of testing up at Vandenberg Air Force Base a few miles to the north, but this was coming from the south; the direction of Point Conception. There was no tempo to the percussion, nothing musical. It would have been much louder if it weren’t competing with the moan of the wind. I tried to dismiss the thuds, but kept waiting for the next one. I decided to check things out.
As I sat up to open the window of my camper shell, a man’s hand appeared on the glass and knocked three times. I fell backward and my legs went weak. He knocked again and said, “Hello? Please wake up! We need your help.”
“Who’s that?” I said.
“My name is Sam. I mean no harm.”
I had no choice. I would have had choices if I’d been smart enough to lock the camper shell from the outside and keep the window between the bed and the cab unlocked. Then I could have crawled through to the cab, started the truck, and burned rubber. Gritting my teeth and bracing myself, I opened the camper shell window halfway and peered out. My intruder was standing across the fire to illuminate himself to me, I suppose.
“‘Sup?” I said in my best prison voice.
“We’ve met,” he said. “Back Lompoc way.”
I could see the black cowboy hat and boots. He lifted his head so I could see his face better in the starlight and ember glow. His eyes seemed tough but somehow friendly. Patient. He was the most Native American-looking man I’d ever met in person. He held something out to me in the palm of his hand.
“Please,” he said. “Please allow me to sit by your fire. I offer you this in exchange for your company. I have a story to tell you.”
I stepped down and received the gift from across the fire pit. It was an abalone shell, rough with barnacles on one side, but softer than silk on the inside. The polished smoothness of its fleshy interior reflected the entire scope of the prism; a rainbow beamed off its concave walls. I held the abalone in my hand and stared at the man. I thanked him with a confused tone of voice that invited him to explain the reason for the gift.
“It is a Chumash tradition to come bearing gifts. I was told you were coming. Please, sit.”
“Hey wait a sec, man, I said. Who told you I was coming?”
“Please sit. I will tell you.”
*Photos by Josh Gill
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