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Sarah Tajlor's Granddaughter
I never knew nothing but the spirit.
The scene was typical. Mabel lecturing, answering questions from an auditorium of students and faculty who wanted to know about her baskets and her life as a medicine woman. As always, she was puzzling, maddening. But that morning I studied her carefully, as if I might see or understand something about her for the first time. She had asked me to write her life story, and after knowing her for over thirty years and with stacks of notes and miles of tape, I still didn't know how.
"You're an Indian doctor," a young woman with bright red hair spoke from the middle of the room. "What do you do for poison oak?"
"Calamine lotion," Mabel answered. She was matter-offact. The student sank into her chair.
A distinguished-looking man in gray tweed raised his hand. Mabel looked down from the podium to the front row where he was sitting.
"Mabel, how old were you when you started weaving baskets?"
Mabel adjusted her modish square glasses. "Bout six, I guess."
"When did you reach perfection?"
Mabel didn't understand the professor's question and looked to where I was sitting, behind a display table showing her baskets.
"When did your baskets start to be good?" I ventured. "When did you start selling them?"
Mabel looked back at the man. "Bout nineteen, eighteen maybe."
"Was it your grandmother who taught you this art?"
"It's no such a thing art. It's spirit. My grandma never taught me nothing about the baskets. Only the spirit trained me." She waited for another question from the man, then added, "I only follow my Dream. That's how I learn."
The young woman from the middle of the room shot up again. Clearly, she was perplexed. "I mean, Mabel, do you use herbs and plants to treat people?"
"Do you talk to them? Do they talk to you?"
"Well, if I'm going to use them I have to talk, pray."
The woman paused, then asked, "Do plants talk to each other?"
"What do they say?"
Mabel laughed out loud, then caught her breath and said, "I don't know. Why would I be listening?"
At that point the professor who had sponsored Mabel's visit announced that time was up and that people could look at Mabel's baskets on their way out. He reiterated the fact that Mabel was an Indian with a different world view, reminding the audience of her story earlier about meeting the Kashaya Pomo medicine woman Essie Parrish in Dream twenty years before she met her in person. The professor, an earnest man in his mid-forties, turned to Mabel. "You must have recognized Essie Parrish when you first saw her in person, didn't you, Mabel?"
Mabel, who was fussing to detach the microphone from her neck, looked and said, "Yes, but she cut her hair a little."
There it was. Quintessential Mabel. Nothing new. Same stories and questions. Same answers. This small Indian woman, over eighty years old, with coifed black hair and modish glasses, this little Indian woman in a mauve-colored summer dress adorned on the shoulder with a corsage of imitation African violets, had turned a Stanford auditorium upside down. No one cracked her.
On the way back to the Rumsey Reservation that day, I kept wondering how I was going to write about Mabel's life. She was baffling, even for me. Certainly the facts of her life were interesting and warranted a story. World-renowned Pomo basketmaker with permanent collections in the Smithsonian and countless other museums. The last Dreamer and sucking doctor among the Pomo peoples. The last living member of the Long Valley Cache Creek Pomo tribe. The astute interlocutor famous for her uncanny talk that left people's minds spinning. The facts were easy. The life was not.
We drove east on Highway 80 toward Sacramento. It was a hot October day; it had not rained and the hills beyond the Bay Area were dust gray. Mabel patted her brow with a clean white handkerchief. Her black patent leather purse sat open on her lap.
"Can I smoke?" she asked.
I knew she'd ask before long. She was polite. She had smoked all the way from Rumsey to Stanford, but remembered that my red Honda Civic was new. In fact, the trip to Rumsey and back was the first major excursion I had made with the vehicle.
"Cars doing pretty good," Mabel said from the side of her mouth as she lit a cigarette.
I pulled out the half-full ashtray. First thing to clean when I get back to Stanford, I thought. So much for the new-car smell.
"Drought coming," Mabel said exhaling a cloud of smoke. "Grandma said one time everything dried up. Peoples had to go clear to Sacramento for water."
"Yes, she followed Highway 16 from Rumsey to Woodland in a wagon. Was a dirt road then. No water in Woodland, so she went on to the Sacramento River. One of the horses died. Lots of animals died. She stayed along the river until the first rains came. She was hungry. She ate fish mush and drank willow bark tea." I knew the story. It seemed I knew all the stories. Over the years, ever since I was a kid, I had heard them again and again.
"Yes," Mabel added, "and lots of them valley people there suspicious of Grandma on account of her grandfather having that white snake poison. Saying problems is on account of her. Thing is that man had that poison sold it off. Some peoples even think I got that poison." She chuckled at herself and puffed her cigarette. "How can I be doctor and poison you at the same time?"
"See Mabel, that's the problem. Your stories go all over the place. I can't write them like that. It's too hard for people to follow. I don't know where to start."
Mabel exhaled another long cloud of smoke and rubbed her cigarette out in the ashtray. She folded her hands resolutely over her purse. I saw from the corner of my eye; it seemed the gesture was intended for me. I focused on the road.
"Mabel, people want to know about things in your life in a way they can understand. You know, how you got to be who you are. There has to be a theme."
"I don't know about no theme."
I squirmed in my seat. Her hands didn't move. "A theme is a point that connects all the dots, ties up all the stories ..."
"That's funny. Tying up all the stories. Why somebody want to do that?"
"When you write a book there has to be a story or idea, a theme ..."
"Well, theme I don't know nothing about. That's somebody else's rule. You just do the best way you know how. What you know from me."
Back to the facts. I drove on in silence. Mirages rose from the hot pavement. Stories. Old Grandma Sarah Taylor on her wagon. The buckets of dirty clothes rattling on the wagon bed as she steered the horses over the hard, rocky ground to the creek. The sickly little girl next to her who was Dreaming in a world of white people ...
It was a summer Monday like so many others. Wash day and one-hundred-degree heat. Only today Old Sarah didn't leave her granddaughter under the willow tree. After she watered and tied the horses, she lifted the frail seven-year-old to the ground and sat her in the sand near the washboard and pounding rocks. With three sticks and the sheriff's wife's calico housedress, she built a tent over the girl. Then she began to unload the wagon. Underclothes, trousers and shirts, dresses, children's clothes. The buckets that belonged to the woman on the hill, those from the sheriff's wife and from the storekeeper. She placed them in a row along the water, but all the while she watched the clump of silver willows downstream and the chaparral behind her. She watched the horses, seeing where they turned their heads.
She had sensed something wrong just beyond the Rumsey store, when she was hardly out of town. Someone watching her. The horses lifted their heads. She pulled in the reins and started shouting. "What do you want? I've got the white people's things. I've got the ghosts' clothes. If you touch me, they'll track you." She called out in the local Wintun language, then in Sulphur Bank Porno, and then in Wintun again. She knew half a dozen languages and she called out in every one of them. Every one of them except her own, Lolsel Cache Creek Porno. On and on she shouted. And then as quickly as she had started, she stopped. Slowly, she let out the reins, and with her one free hand untied the scarves around her head. She needed to see from the corners of her eyes. She needed to take precautions. So before she knelt in the water with the dirty clothes and washboard, she did one more thing. She hung the sheriff's shirts on the wagon, from the bed and over the seat back.
She pulled a bucket close to her and knelt in a shallow pool. She looked over her shoulder. "Mabel," she called. The gaunt child looked up with sleep-swollen eyes. She was sitting just as Sarah had left her. "Lie down," she said. "Put your head on the scarves there." The girl stared at her, her large, wide face unmoving. Sarah turned back to her work.
The girl would sleep. She had been up half the night, talking out loud in her Dream. Sarah started on the underclothes. The way a person dresses. First things first. She hadn't let the white people down in ten years. Mondays, wash. Tuesdays, iron. Other days, outside chores, paint, chop wood. Or the orchards. When she walked into town last spring after a five-month stay in Cortina, the white folks asked her back. They let go the Indian help they had hired to replace her. "Old Sarah, the best," they said, which is what she repeated at the end of each day's work as they dropped a coin into her apron and handed her a loaf of bread, sometimes a box of crackers, for the sick girl at her side. Old Sarah, the best. It was about the only English she knew. She wasn't that old really, fifty or so. Her weathered face and old Victorian dress and loose aprons told nothing of the arms and back that hoisted sixty-pound boxes of apples and pounded clothes eight hours straight.
The sun on her bare head would make her delirious in time. She knew working faster wouldn't help. Neither would crying. For that she only allowed herself the time each morning it took the sun to hit the mountaintops. She had to go on. There was the girl. Mabel. Go on, she told herself as she glanced at the girl and took up a handful of underclothes.
It started about four years ago, shortly after the child began speaking. The long, full stares. Restless nights. The strange things she said. "It's good to be here, away from that Big Lady by the lake," she told her mother once. She was referring to her father's first wife, who had tried to poison her mother up in Nice. But how could she have known anything about that? She was an infant then. How did she know to call the woman Big Lady? Then once when a man from somewhere near Sacramento knocked on Sarah's door, the girl grabbed a piece of meat off the table and handed it to Sarah. Sarah, who stood in the doorway facing the man, took the meat from the child without thinking. When she looked back at the man, he was stepping backward, away from the door, the reflection of her and the girl vanishing in his frightened eyes. Mabel pushed him backward, down the road, with her gaze. He had come to poison Sarah, and Mabel had known as much, even at the age of three. She knew to show him meat. Offer a stranger meat. If he doesn't take it, he is carrying poison. A poisoner must fast from meat. The old Indian rule.
Maybe that's who is after us, Sarah thought as she pushed an undershirt over the washboard. He saw the girl was different, that she had something powerful and old. Others had seen, too. Those people last fall at Mrs. Spencer's grape-picking camp who had heard the girl cry and hum at night and seen her heavy eyes in the day. It could be any of them. This wasn't the first time Sarah felt someone following her.
Maybe it was some good person, a good doctor watching, keeping an eye on the girl until she was ready to be helped with the Dream. Sarah didn't linger on that idea, though. In people's minds, the girl called up Lolsel, or Wild Tobacco, the ancient village place where Sarah was born, and where now only her sister Belle remained. Lolsel, in the hills above Clear Lake, some twenty-five miles west of the valley, of Rumsey. Lolsel, where Sarah's brother, Richard, began the Dream religion, where he called people from far and near to hear his Dreams, where people listened and began Dreaming themselves, Dreaming new dances and songs, sacred activities that would keep them alive after the white people had taken everything but their souls to Dream. Bole Maru, they called the Dream religion in the west. Bole Hesi, in the east. But Lolsel was always special. Always a place of powerful people, astonishing events. The small valley tucked in the hills, where strong medicine grew. Where white eagles appeared to the people and traded doctoring songs for live rabbits and small deer, and later, out of gratitude for the good trade, gave one old man there enough white feathers for a full-length cape, a gown so brilliant it exposed every sickness in its path, every darkness in a human body.
That was Old Taylor's father, or maybe his father's father. Sarah's grandfather, or great-grandfather. The same one who discovered the snake one dry summer in Cache Creek just north of the village. A snake a hundred feet long, twenty feet wide, pure white with the head of a deer. It filled the creek bed; it was stuck, unable to slide past the stone-dry creek walls. He sacrificed the snake, killed it with song. He called many people to see it, then ground its dried remains into a powder that he sold to all the neighboring tribes. It was a deadly poison, but he figured if everybody owned it, nobody could use it. You counteracted the poison with the poison. But things got mixed up. The white people came not long after. An awful time. The stories got mixed up. People were always suspicious of strangers, persons from other villages, and now they were forced to live with them, work with them. Sometimes entire villages disappeared. Maybe a few from here survived, a few from there. Smallpox left Lolsel with hardly a dozen people. Once a large village of five hundred, only a handful by 1871 when Richard preached his Dream. But someone remembered about the snake, and told it wrong. When Sarah moved into the small house in Rumsey, someone said, "She has that white snake poison. That old ancestor of hers didn't sell it all. Why else does she look so good to the white people? She makes us look bad. It's her poison."
Sarah got a ride into the valley with the rancher. She stood outside the barn where he hitched the horses and she pointed to the road. He knew she was leaving the place. It wasn't just the gunnysack of clothes at her feet, which she took with her whenever he gave her a ride anywhere. And it wasn't just that she was pointing east toward the Sacramento Valley on the coldest day in winter, when snow was on the hilltops and there wasn't an almond to crack or an apricot to pick anywhere in Rumsey. It was that a week before, her oldest children had come for her youngest. The older boys, young men really, Nelson, Anderson, and Dewey, who built the rancher's stone fences and cleared the land for his cattle, came on a wagon of their own, a wagon with fine wheels and a long bed, and loaded up the younger brother, McKinley, and the girl, Daisy. How could he protest? There wasn't really enough work for them, and now he couldn't afford to feed them well. Game was scarce and his own family needed what supplies he could get in Rumsey. And now didn't it make sense that the old woman would follow her children?
Sarah let the man with long red sideburns help her onto the wagon. His worn leather gloves felt cold, smooth. They started off then, past the barn and the rancher's house, past where Sarah could see the Indian shacks by the creek. The half dozen or so places looked small, abandoned, except for where smoke rose from a single stovepipe. The wagon bumped and made the corner away from the ranch. Sarah turned in her seat, kept looking back after the barn and Indian places disappeared. She could still see the elderberry tree in the open, flat field. It was bare now, of course, but its drooping branches held full white flowers each spring and dark blue berries every summer.
Excerpted from Mabel McKay by Greg Sarris. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Sarah Taylor's Granddaughter
Carnivals, Madams, and Mixed-Up