By Stephen Thom
They thanked the old woman and shuffled through the hanging reed-mat. Emmett looked back and saw the chalk line following him as he ducked into the main room. A throng of children huddled against the partition scrambled out of the hut.
The woman sitting beside the fire stood and spoke quickly to Piru. She gestured towards Emmett. He did not understand the words but he understood the gist. Piru pressed her palms downwards, as if to press calm into the room. The dialogue went back and forth. The woman's voice became increasingly heated before she abruptly left, waving a dismissive hand as she went.
Piru sighed and prompted them to sit down on a rug by the fire. Abigail rubbed her hands together as she watched the girl fetch three bowls from the shelves in the corner. Emmett sat quietly cross-legged. He felt tired, chastened, and stupid.
Piru handed them each a bowl and a wooden spoon, and sat beside them. Emmett stirred the brown paste inside his bowl.
'What is it?' he asked. Piru's face was illuminated in the glow of the fire.
'Acorns,' she said. 'Ground into a paste. This is common here.'
Abigail's face fell, but she caught herself.
'Sounds just delicious,' she said.
The fire crackled and a light rain pittered against the hut as they ate. When they had finished Piru cleared the bowls and sat closer to them.
'I must apologise for my sister,' she said. 'But the truth is that she will not suffer you to stay here with your sickness. No-one will. It is written on you. They are aware of these things only as ancient stories, but it scares them nonetheless. I do not want to turn you out, after all you have been through. But they will not suffer you here.'
Abigail's head drooped, and a spill of unkempt hair fell over her face. When she looked up again Emmett saw that her lips were cracked, and her eyes puffy and exhausted. He felt the familiar twinge of guilt; it was near ever-present, now.
'We have to go to this Halfway Place, don't we,' Abigail whispered, and her voice wobbled as she spoke.
'Like your grandmama said. We have to try and fix his count.'
Piru picked a stone up from the circular spread around the fire, and turned it over in her hands.
'I will speak further with her, but that is my belief. I am not sure what form this place takes, or indeed how you would go about this task. Only that the old tales say that this is a place where counts are collected and processed. Farmed.'
She looked at Emmett.
'Where what was taken from you may be reclaimed. But I think that you must study your shapes further. Already you have used incorrect shapes, and it has cost you dearly. I believe that you will need to use these things again. You know that there are nochuza tracking you, and there may be others who desire them.'
Emmett chewed his bottom lip. Despite everything he had seen and experienced on their journey through the mountains, it was hard to take her words seriously. They were abstract words and it was hard to make the leap. He listened to the drill of the rain on the reed-mats. Piru turned to Abigail.
'I think that your brother must make this journey. I think that his symptoms will worsen, and that to find this place is his hope. I would not wish it so. But this is his hope.'
She leaned forward and clasped Abigail's hand.
'I do not want you go,' she said. 'You are only a small child, and you have both passed through enough peril. You are not sick. I would have you stay here with us.'
Emmett seized up and coughed. Abigail's eyes widened, and then she laughed.
'Let him go off all on his lonesome? I cain't do that. He's all blusteration, he'd be dead in a ditch in half a day.'
'I kilt two of them cloth people!' Emmett snapped. Piru frowned.
'I do not think that they can be killed in this sense,' she said.
'He's still my brother,' Abigail said. 'I cain't leave him. I'm real grateful you all helped us, Miss Piru, but I cain't stay here if he ain't.'
Piru looked vacantly into the fire.
'It is not right,' she said. 'It is not right that either of you should go. But there is time to talk more of this. I can offer you only one night here. Already they are unsettled,' she said, nodding towards the hut entrance. 'And already they are talking. If you wish to go together, we will prepare you with supplies, and such protection as we can offer. I will take you out of the valley. There is a place I wish to show you, that I hope will help you to understand both the nochuza, and these things you carry more clearly. It is some distance away, but I will take you. You should rest now.'
The fire was dying, and darkness had spread around the hut. Piru rose and fetched them buffalo skins to sleep on. She wished them good night, and told them she would see to Buck before she slept herself. As they lay down they heard children's voices drifting through the reed mats. It sounded like there were many people gathered outside.
'You ain't goin' off by yourself, are you, Emmett?' Abigail whispered.
Emmett reached over and took her hand.
'I'm beat, Abi,' he said, 'I ain't goin' nowhere.'
He tried to close his eyes, but his body felt tense and wired. A shapeless evil seemed to move around the embers of the fire. His mind spat a series of strange words and images: nochuza, Halfway Place, seeds, counts, gates, sickness. He clung to Abigail's hand, and the images followed him into a dark and troubled sleep.
Morning cast a warm light over the glade. Groups of Chumash woman and children stood watching as Emmett nudged Buck forward. They stared sadly at him, and he stared back with his sick, snowy eyes.
In the daytime he could see that the floor of the clearing was carpeted with dense patches of purple-blue wild iris, and as Piru rode beside them it seemed as if the horses stepped preternaturally upon a bright and quiescent lake. The wide crowns of the cottonwood, their heart-shaped leaves shot through with white veins, formed a protective screen around the village. He held Abigail close before him, and felt in that moment as though they were departing the last good place on earth.
Piru led them west through the woods. For a long time they passed under a rustling roof of bright green foliage laced with tiny red blooms. The undergrowth was littered with cotton-covered seeds. Abigail looked round at Piru as their horses trotted beside each other.
'You talk better'n me n' Emmett do, Piru,' she said.
Light cut in shafts through breaks in the canopy overhead. Cotton seeds drifted around them, and they felt the land begin to rise. Piru drew the reins through her hands and brought her horse closer to Buck.
'My mother and father learned some Spanish at the hands of the pádres,' she said, 'mostly for the purpose of abidance and survival, and similarly some of us now have learned this tongue. Though ours is a hidden existence now, there is need at times for parley, or barter, or such diplomacy as can be managed. I have known many of our people to be captured and ransomed.'
Abigail's lips thinned. Emmett thumbed his hat up, to see the forest floor clearer as it began to climb.
'Is that where all your menfolk are?' Abigail asked. Emmett inhaled sharply, but she paid no mind to him.
Piru lifted her right hand and brushed her dark hair behind her ears. The trees were thinning, and there were greater gaps in the greenery overhead. Soft, downy snow floated through, and mingled with the cotton drops.
'There are fewer men than there were before,' she said, 'but such as they are they guard the foothills. They must be ever vigilant, and they are often gone for long spells. They raid the creole settlements. This is survival.'
'In case bad people come?' Abigail said. 'We saw a village all burnt way back. Is that what happened to you? That's why you all are hidden now?'
Emmett sighed. 'She don't mean to be askin' you about hurtful things, Miss Piru, she's just curious,' he said.
'She can speak right for herself,' Abigail said, twisting round to look at him. 'But I am sorry if I'm askin' 'bout things I shouldn't.'
The passed out of a bank of trees onto a flat-topped butte, and the landscape changed. A mass of peaks skewered the sky, and past the steep-sided hill they traversed, a colossal gendarme surged above a slender ridge. The cottonwood were replaced by lines of spindly gray-barked bitter cherry, with clusters of pinkish flowers dotted on their fine-toothed leaves.
'It is just that it is a long story,' Piru said. 'And one with much sadness. But I do not resent the asking.'
The snow came thicker now, and the wind bit. Buck's saddlebags jangled as Emmett drew him up alongside Piru's horse.
'If I was to go back,' Piru said, glancing down at Abigail, 'to well before my time, then I suppose that the pádres came first. Many of the People were moved to missions to learn labour. Many, many died there; from overcrowding, starvation, overworking and mistreatment. They treated us like beasts; flogged us, shipped us to Spain, forced us to pay tribute, killed us if we failed to make the tribute. But most died from diseases, new diseases. This was the way for many years, and our numbers dwindled. Then some years ago, the creoles won their independence, and granted the People citizenship. Maybe we thought that things then would be different, but they were not.'
She paused to settle her horse as its front hooves flailed over an abrupt dip. Emmett glanced over as he nudged Buck into the decline; her eyes were cold and hard.
'They continued to beat and torture and oppress,' she said, 'and we revolted. At La Purisima near the sea, some two thousand of the People defeated the creoles, and took the mission. They held it for many months, then looted it and made for the mountains. Other escapees came from missions in San José, Santa Cruz, San Juan Bautista... although many of these were routed by the creoles. So it was and here we are now. This was the system of survival given to us. Many of the People remain in the Sierra foothills, and other hidden places. The menfolk, such as they are now, guard the hills, and raid creole settlements. This is survival.'
Abigail lowered her head. Her button nose was bright red in the cold.
'And now,' Piru continued, 'after all this upheaval and disease and death, the white settlers came from Turtle Island, seeking war with the creoles, and the conquest of this land. This has been the worst of all. Our ways are beyond their comprehension. They bring barbarity and hatred, and they seek to exterminate us. They offer bounty for every head turned in. The miners that find no gold, they make their living in our murder. They ride on horses laden with our heads and scalps.'
Emmett folded the rein into his left hand, and rested his right hand on Abigail's shoulder. He felt it lift and fall as she breathed, and he squeezed gently. Piru brushed snow from her hair.
'Before we were here,' she said, 'before the hidden place, they came. We were in our homes. We were not hurting anyone. Many fled. I fled with my sister. We were told to. We were told to while we still could. But we could not get far, and we hid. My mother, they killed her, and they cut her heart out and threw it in the brush where we hid. My father was made to watch this, and then they did the same to him also.'
Emmett pressed Abigail's shoulder, but she was silent. The horses scrabbled as they negotiated the sharp slopes of the butte. They hit the ridge under the shadow of the gendarme, and Emmett neckreined Buck onto the slender pass. To their right a precipitous drop collapsed into wreaths of mist. They stopped before the pass for food and water, but Abigail would not eat. She was pale and quiet. When they mounted to cross the ridge, she remained silent.
They were required to go single file beneath the towering embankment. Wind howled in the void below, and grim incorporeal shapes formed within the fog. Stones dislodged before them and tumbled into the ether. The horse got skitterish again and backed up, and Emmett and Abigail dismounted to lead him along. Piru dismounted too, and it appeared to Emmett that she did this out of solidarity.
Snow came in thick waves, and the pass curved precariously above the chasm. They held hands, clung to the reassuring granite of the gendarme, stepped slowly, and whispered to Buck.
Eventually the pass completed its bent trajectory around the mountainside, declined, and opened out onto a rocky plateau. Boulders reared from tangles of taproot and brambles. Two immense black oaks stood like ancient sentinels at the far edge of the mesa. The sun looked sickly behind the curtain of snow. Piru prompted them to lead the horses over to the black oaks, and from there they looked down into a deep and shadowy vale.