I am of the seventh generation since my great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents, Fructuoso Cholom and Yginina Yunisyunis, emerged from Mission San Carlos de Borromeo in Carmel, California in the mid-1830's. I am half white, half Indian, mixed with Mexican and Jewish tribes. When I look at all that has passed since Fructuoso Cholom and Yginia Yunisyunis were emancipated, I wonder if they dreamed that their descendants would still be struggling to free ourselves, seven generations later.
When I look toward the next seven generations, I imagine this is the kind of story that my descendants will tell, seven generations from now, in the future mythology of the Mestiza Nation.
Once there was a girl without a mother.
She’d never had a mother, even though she called the woman who gave birth to her Mama. This woman kept leaving her daughter behind at relative’s homes or forgetting her in stores. It wasn’t entirely Mama’s fault; often when she thought her arms were full of little girl, or that the little girl was safely clutching Mama’s hand, it was really the ghost of a daughter Mama had lost years ago.
So when Mama felt the weight of a child heavy against her hip or tugging at her arm, she didn’t know it was actually the pull of persistent sorrow distracting her from the real child. Sometimes the real little girl caught sight of her dead sister, hungrily wrapping her chubby arms around Mama’s neck as they went out the door together, leaving the little girl once again. Sometimes the little girl’s father followed them.
Her father was why the little girl was different from her older sister and brother. They were light-skinned, with clear blue eyes and hair the color of cornflakes. But the girl without a mother was cinnamon-colored, with thick dark hair, vivid against her family. When the girl without a mother held hands with her brother or sister to cross the street, their long slender fingers seem to tangle up with her wide flat palms and short fingers. At the park, no one listened to the little girl when she claimed her brother and sister, not even when the big sister yelled at the bullies trying to push her off the swing.
The girl without a mother began to understand that she was invisible. She wondered if this was why her Ghost Sister had become a ghost in the first place; if she herself were becoming a less and less real, too.
Eventually the woman who gave birth to the little girl went away and didn’t come back. Secretly, the girl thought perhaps her mother was looking for the girl’s father, who had been missing for some time now. The big sister didn’t tell anyone, but bathed her little brother and sister each night, fed them cereal each morning, dropped the little girl off at a babysitter’s, rode the bus with the little brother to school. In the evenings, the big sister brushed the little girl’s hair, and helped the little brother with his homework, but one day, the food ran out. The big sister, who was only eleven years old, had to call a grown-up. The older brother and sister were taken to a foster home, a place for children without parents. But the home only had space for older children. Bring the little one back in the fall, said the people in charge. We might have room then.
That is how the girl without a mother came to stay with her mother’s parents for one short season.
Her mother’s parents were light-skinned and blue-eyed as well, but in those days it was common for such people to settle in the very land from which the little girl’s father and his people had emerged. The girl loved her grandmother’s house in the dry Tehachapi Mountains; she spent the summer playing with lizards and horned toads, sleeping between cool cotton sheets, watching the glimmer of hummingbirds come to her grandmother’s feeder very early in the morning. Her dark eyes feasted on the sagebrush dotting the brown hills, and she spoke regularly with a black bird perched in the manzanita behind the house. She ran barefoot whenever she could, her feet finding joy in the dust. Once, she sat down on some ants who were busy with their own matters, and was badly bitten. Later, after apologizing to the ants, the little girl watched them work for hours, at a distance.
Every evening the grandmother bathed the girl in a deep shiny white tub, but no matter how hard the woman scrubbed, the colors wrought by soil and sun would not be cleansed from the girl’s knees and cheeks.
“More like that man every day,” the grandfather muttered to himself, shaking his head. “The sooner they have room for her at Mrs. Samm’s the better.”
But the grandmother saw her own lost daughter in this little girl’s movements, and wished for a chance to correct her mistakes as a mother. The grandmother let the girl without a mother sow corn in the small fenced flower garden, where the green stalks were watered generously each evening along with the morning glories, petunias, pansies, tall daisies and brilliant orange poppies.
When the corn reached the girl’s waist, the foster family called: they still had no room for the girl without a mother. The grandfather silenced the grandmother’s look with a curt, “No.” The grandmother turned away.
No one asked the girl where she would like to live. She would have chosen to stay and see the corn grow past her head. But one day before the sun was up, her grandmother came to wake her for a trip to a yet another place.
The girl without a mother stood on the steps of her grandmother’s house. Behind her rose a mountain, dark and seemingly still. Before her rose the sky, arched black and brilliant with stars, and the cleft of a long valley. The air was dry, cool, gently opening.
From her grandmother’s garden came the smooth slippery surge of petunias, snapdragons, poppies. The happy leaves of the corn plants shivered with pleasure as they grew upwards in their slow spiral. The girl without a mother stood alone, huddled in a soft sweater, wearing only a sundress underneath because it would be hot later. Inside the house, her grandmother packed sandwiches and thermoses of coffee and milk. The grandmother cried as she tightened the lids of containers.
No person saw this; only the grandmother’s heart knew this grief that she would not speak of until she was a very old woman, many thousands of miles away from this place, dying, and asking forgiveness. In the garage, the grandfather loaded up the truck that would take the girl without a mother away. He would start the motor any minute.
But for one moment before dawn the world was humming with quiet power, and the girl without a mother heard a funny sound.
Thump and pause. Thump and pause. Scraps of a song wandered in between the sounds. It almost seemed to be asking a question, a question the girl couldn’t quite hear all the words to, but that she wanted to answer. Thump, pause. Thump, pause, song.
The girl went quickly down the wooden steps and around the back of the house, stepping carefully around the gopher traps she’d watched her grandfather set. Thump, pause. Song, song, song. The girl wandered into a dry streambed, followed the stones. The rocks were washed and smooth and she could see where to put her feet better and more easily the longer she climbed; the sun was following behind her.
She climbed and climbed. When the girl without a mother got tired, a woman came to meet her, and took her through the side of the mountain. Come here, this way, the woman said; she picked up her grinding stone and basket, pushed aside a curtain of dried grasses and sticks. We are little rabbits looking for our nest, she smiled, we are fawns, called to our mother’s side in the warm grass. And the girl without a mother followed the song of the woman who came out of a mountain.
Inside the opening was a cool, sandy tunnel. The darkness seemed soft, like a light blanket, not frightening at all. After only a few steps, the two came out into another place, a land with a stream full of big silver fish swimming lazily in from the sea, seemingly straight into the nets and hands of laughing men; oak trees covered thick green hills. Under the heavy branches, families with baskets gathered acorns, children played while they worked, women were easy with their voices. The girl without a mother noticed right away that some of the people were darker than her, and some of them were lighter.
The woman who came out of a mountain gestured to the new place. See, this is where you will live now.
Are you going to be my mother? asked the girl without a mother, taking off her blue sweater and letting it slide to the ground.
No, I’m just an old woman, laughed the woman who came out of a mountain. Not many children here have mothers. But you’ll be cared for. This is getting to be a big family. We’re busy just now – acorns, salmon, islay are good this year. You’ll have to help.
By now the little girl had stripped off her sundress, and her black patent leather shoes that squished her toes, and the white slippery socks that made her feet sweat. She stood in itchy underwear that got caught in all the wrong places but had been her secret armor against the dark. Hardly anyone here wore clothes except for pretty, she noticed; but most girls her age had a rustly skirt. Can I have one of those? she asked, pointing to two girls running by with empty baskets in their arms. And a basket like that for working?
The woman who came out of a mountain reached out and stopped the other children. This is the girl I went to find, explained the woman. Help her make a skirt, and give her a basket. She’ll work with you.
The three girls looked at each other. The girl without a mother was astonished. One of the girls had a dark, serious face much like her own – short nose, arched eyebrows, thin lips – but freckles washed across her cheeks. Her eyes sparkled black and made the girl rise on her tiptoes with a laugh. Her hair was shiny black and thick, like the little girl’s, too.
The second girl stood light and alive, as if she could hardly keep from dancing away; her skin was the color of sand in the river, and her eyes glimmered brown and green like water over deep rocks. Yet her hair had the same still darkness as her companion’s.
The girl without a mother knew with a certainty that here were others who had not matched their families.
Suddenly both girls smiled, and the girl without a mother, who had no brothers or sisters who looked the way she did, felt a grin blossom on her own face. Some scar sealed shut in her chest opened; warm, strong, blood rushed in.
The first girl held out a round basket, revealing her wide flat palm and short strong fingers.
It was all a long time ago, longer than anyone remembers. On the other side of the tunnel, people searched for the girl without a mother. They had dogs who tracked her faint scent up a rocky streambed, farther than anyone believed she could have walked. But even the dogs couldn’t find any sign past a place where the arroyo curved sharply around a big hill dense with sagebrush and rabbit holes.
Long after the little girl’s corn had ripened, taller than the grandmother and heavy with fat ears, the grandparents ceased looking. The foster family didn’t have room for the many other children in that place without mothers, anyway. People slowly forgot about the girl without a mother, though her grandmother came out before dawn and listened hard for music she was almost afraid to hear.
Every once in awhile the woman who came out of a mountain went back, pushed aside the curtain of sagebrush and manzanita, and looked out. She could see a long, long way from her hill; clearly, too.
Sometimes her sharp eyes caught sight of a certain kind of child. Then the woman who came out of a mountain would take her grinding stones and basket, sit by the entrance, and sing. If the child were very small, the woman would walk quietly down the streambed to meet him. If the child were older, the woman sang soothing songs to encourage her.
None of the children who came to her ever arrived unharmed, but the woman who came out of a mountain always took them home with her anyway.
This is the song she sang:
Ah hey way lo lo, hey way
lo lo, hey way lo-lo;
Lo lo, hey-hey, ah hey way
lo lo, hey way lo-lo;
A hey way lo lo, hey way
lo lo, hey way lo-lo
lo lo hey hey
hey way lo lo
hey way lo lo
lo lo hey hey
ah hey way lo lo
hey way lo lo
hey way lo lo . . .