ix Bad Luck Boy

Encouraged as much by the promise of the talking toad as by the souring prospects of their ruwat,  a few Achistacas made the trip down to the world of the newcomers. The choices in those days were Mission Santa Clara and San José, a fledgling settlement where people could hire themselves out to  for cheap treasures and meat, and some pinole, which was their version of acorn soup. Every time somebody left, everyone in Achistac gathered to give their farewells and the holom would always call out, “Don’t let their magic bewitch you! and bring back much jerky!” He had develop a taste for the newcomer version of jerky while trading with neighboring rancherias, and by accepting many gifts from the soul-seekers, even as he bad-mouthed their ways. He had heard how some ruwats had moved their populations near the mission almost completely, headman and all, and he vowed never to make that suggestion. He pleaded with everyone that if they decided to go to Santaca to return soon to help out with the upcoming harvest, and to not abandon the mountains, that these will never abandon any of their children. Yet there was no denying it. The Achistacas were a fewer people living with fewer of the things they once enjoyed.  The days hid behind to endless curtains of rain. The huts sagged and leaked, aching to be destroyed as cold arrived with its usual disdain.

Zalan, however, was not bothered by the falling rain. He liked how it drowned out the other sounds of the world and gave him space to think. Standing as tall as a bear on all fours, Zalan was no longer a boy and his mind filled with new preoccupations that fed and developed on the endless pouring of water from above.  Manhood was just around the bend, taking its sweet time too, like a hesitant fish that would not bite the hook. He thought he had seen more than enough winters to know about the world and its rules of life and death, and what it took to gain respect for oneself.

The rain died down a bit, and a meal was prepared. Grouse.  Zalan came out of his shelter, a large burnt-out hollow inside a grandfather redwood tree ,and began to eat. It was delicious, the meat succulent with the edges blackened where it had been licked by the flames. He raised it to his nose and took in its scent. Soon he would kill a  grouse with his bow. Everyone would sit around the fire, chomping away at his  gift, brought down by his own hand. And after the grouse would come all the other great beasts of the mountains, at least those that people could rightfully eat. His hunger barely quenched, he began to gnaw and suck hard on the thighbone that was left of the bird. How tasty it was, and he slurped with enthusiasm wishing to unlock its marrow without breaking the bone itself. It seemed an elusive prize, like the day when they would  go out on their first real hunt. Every boy dreamed of it since they were very young. Zalan was no different. He thought of Rishuc who would be so jealous  of him when an elder finally pulled him aside and invited to join a society.    He would soon be learning the hunter songs of thanksgiving and luck (not that he didn’t already know them. He had sat outside the sweathouse enough to commit them to memory). The grouse was tasty, but no bird would compare to what it would be like when he brought home Elk. A special gift for his poor diminished mother. Chelcon had not fared well, developing a debilitating fever that almost snuffed her flame completely. She needed help. He was definitely ready, he thought, and he bit down harder on the knobby bone. He could already snare birds, catch fish and rabbits, and fill baskets full of grasshoppers, but why did the society of hunters not come for him yet? He savored the little bit of marrow that was left. Would he ever join them? He dug his tooth into the bone with frustration. Was there not a need for more able hunters with all those dead ones claimed by enemy magic?

Even the rain could not muffle it. Everyone heard it. They had to because in an instant the pounding of the acorns stop. The playing of the children came to a halt, and everyone’s gaze turned to Zalan, who was sitting askew, broken bone in mouth. It was so loud, in fact that the bone sounded like a redwood limb snapping and falling. The juices that escaped it released a horrible squeal that made everyone’s blood still. That was it, the curse was set.

“Bad luck!” and people ran off, hoping not the be the first who that looked into the eyes of the accursed. “Zalan broke a bone!”

Breaking a bone was always bad, but results could vary. Sometimes it occasioned a broken limb of ones own, or a losing streak at handgames, or it could have quite disastrous effects that could transcend the actual bone-breaker.  In Zalan’s case its effects were  almost instantaneous. The next day his arrows flew wildly off mark, Not even the wood would collaborate with him. He tried to straighten his bow, but the wood  snapped. It made people laugh and begin to talk. Soon he could not spear a fish.

“Your boy Zalan is bad luck,” they would say to his father.  And his father would never speak up for his son. It was almost as if he agreed with them. The hunting parties would leave and he would not be among them. Then a most humiliating thing happened. Rishuc was asked into the sweathouse, as well as any male old enough to shoot straight. Kids younger than him were talking big and fashioning their own arrowheads from anything they could get their hands on. The holom had finally decided that it would be necessary to draft more hunters into service to handle the work of the sick and the dead.

“Sorry, Zalan, but we can’t have you join us out there on the trails,” said the holom. “We need all the luck we can get.” So he was left to skin rabbits, or pluck feathers, or repair traps alone, while Rishuc, Upajen and Taeec ventured out with the older boys to hunt elk, deer, and even bear and would return exaggerating their meek exploits to relish in their new found status.

Dreams would come soon and an animal helper would reveal themselves to all, and with it, his destiny. The bone had broken so much more than its own integrity. Zalan had yet to meet his animal helpers. They had not revealed to him, in an obvious way. Rishuc dreamt when he was still very little that the Bobcat carried him by the scruff of the neck, and showed him the path out of a thicket of woods, and thus came to know his spirit helper. Cousin Yapa’s ally was elk. Still others depended on fox, or hummingbird, or even on some more dangerous allies like bears and coyotes, and of course, the owls. His father counted on Lizard for his guile and quickness. This had been also revealed to him in a dream. It was so for most of everybody else, man and woman alike. To his dismay, Zalan, had no known allies, and he began to worry that he would never meet them. He had no one to pray to and invoke, to fight on his behalf against the evils of the forest. At times he felt inclined towards Jackrabbit, but maybe because he spent so much time with them, skinning and cleaning them. And other times he wished for eagle, or meadowlark to reveal themselves, to no avail.

One morning a neighboring messenger ripped through the fog yelling  “Sikil! Sikil!” He explained between pants (he was making his way through the mountain ruwats with the news) that a whole pod of whales had offered themselves upon the shore, not too far south of the river  the Cotoni used to make their summer camp. The news couldn’t have come at a better time. Without much debate people dropped what they were doing, went to store the grain, hastily gathered supplies, put their children in baskets and hit the trails down to the sea like a spooked herd of antelope. There was no time to waste.

Cold arrived with its usual disdain.

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~ by Francisco Nieto on December 21, 2009.

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