Palm Springs, California
The time of the snowmelt, 1920
FAR UP MESQUITE CANYON, beyond the pools of mists and rainbows, deep in the shadows of towering fan palms and cottonwood trees and along a rushing creek where Indians had drawn sweet water for thousands of years, a lone woman worked at her labors.
She was what her people called a pul, a shaman, and she was a member of the Cahuilla tribe in the Coachella Valley of Southern California. The white men had told her she was born in the year 1860, before the railroad tore the valley in half. Her Indian name was Nesha, which in the Cahuilla language meant “woman of mystery.” Not that she herself was mysterious. Luisa knew they had named her Nesha because she would spend her life interpreting mysteries. But when she was little, the Catholic priests came out from the San Gabriel Mission in Los Angeles to baptize her. They changed her name to Luisa. When she was fifteen, she married José Padilla, and she gave him many children, some of whom survived.
José was no longer alive. He got killed when he fell from the top of a very tall palm tree while stealing dates.
Today she was harvesting reeds her people called pa’ul, but which the white man called bulrushes. She prayed as she gathered the tall green stems and tied them together in a bundle to carry on her back. She asked the spirits of the plants to bless her hands and her work—it was going to be a sacred basket, and she had yet to determine its pattern.
Luisa chanted softly as she harvested the rushes. “Meyáwicheqa núkatmi pálpiyik me chéngeneqa, núkatmi; ívim pen metétewangeqa, pen mekwákwaniqa’ me’ní’isneqa ívim.” It was the story of how, when people and animals were first brought into the world, the moon goddess gathered all the Created Ones and took them to the water where she painted them. This was why birds and snakes and lizards and wild cats and insects were so brightly colored and covered in eye-pleasing patterns. Everything in the desert had a design that was painted on it by the moon goddess, which was why the desert was the most beautiful place on earth.
As she moved along the creek, she came upon a wild almond tree that she had not known was there. Ever since white men brought this nut tree to the valley, the seeds had been carried by wind and birds, to grow here and there in special, hidden places. Luisa smiled. The tree was covered entirely with pink flowers, which meant it produced sweet almonds; those trees with flowers that were almost white at the tip of the petals and were red at the base produced bitter almonds. The green nuts, she saw, were nearly ripe. She would return with a basket and harvest them. Then she would crush the nuts and store them in a warm container to allow the oil to rise.
Her people made many uses of almond oil, but Luisa had a particular one in mind. The oil created a lubricant for lovemaking. In her own experience, no man could resist a woman who had bathed her soft t’pili in sweet almond oil. Nice for the woman, too, when her husband’s stiff húyal was slippery with oil.
When she heard a bird chirping on a nearby bush, she paused to listen. Luisa was her clan’s spirit-reader, receiving messages from the spirit world in times of danger and strife. She most often received spirit-messages when she was working, for that was when her mind was clearest and she was most receptive to communications from the other world.
The bird was telling her about a sunrise. Luisa saw clearly in her mind the eastern horizon, the golden cresting of the sun, while overhead and in the west, stars still shone. The sharper the message, the more important it was. Luisa had learned this over the years. Clear messages came to her when the spirits were anxious. It was their way of shouting. And so, because of its clarity, its depth of color and detail, she knew that the vision of the sunrise was important. Perhaps urgent.
Something was going to happen at a sunrise.
“Is it going to happen soon?” she said to the small brown-and-yellow bird.
She listened to his voice. He was repeating his message. So, a very important message.
Cautiously, she stepped closer. When she heard a hissing sound, she stopped and looked around. There, amid a clump of flowering cactus, lay Mésax, the red diamond rattlesnake. She watched him. Listened. The wind whispered past her ears and spoke in the palm fronds overhead. She looked up. The tips of the green fronds caught sparks of sunlight. Beyond, the sky was deep and blue and stretched to eternity.
Luisa looked at the snake. He was big, a grandfather, with a pattern of red diamonds on his fat back. He was not coiled to strike. His black, beady eye was fixed on her.
A storm is coming . . .
“Aii, Mukat,” she whispered. “From which direction?” she asked. From the East. The storm comes by train . . .
She clutched the long reeds against her bosom. White people were coming. Dangerous white people.
“Is the white man coming at sunrise?”
No . . .
“What is happening at sunrise?”
Not the white man, not the storm . . .
Luisa frowned, and then she realized that she had received two separate messages.
“Aii!” she said out loud. Rarely did the spirits confuse her this way; rarely did they compete for her attention. But now two spirits had spoken, two had portended events to come, and Luisa only under-stood the second. The meaning of the first message was lost to her.
“What must I do?”
The new white people will walk on the sacred places. They will walk on the forbidden places. They must be stopped. Hurry back to the village and warn your clan. The snake blinked his dark, beady eye then uncoiled his long, fat body and slowly slithered away.
“But what will happen at sunrise?” She looked for the brown-and-yellow bird. But it was gone.
Quickly gathering up her bundles of pa’ul, Luisa started back down the ancient trail that led to her home at the base of the canyon. Her heart raced with fear. But she was thankful to Mésax for his warning. She would weave her new basket in his honor; she would weave the red diamond rattlesnake pattern.
A storm! Her clan always worried about storms. Clouds remained hidden behind the mountain, wreaking havoc on the summits, unseen by people below. And then the rumbling would come, and a great churning wall of water that would sweep away their village and any people who did not scramble to higher ground.
That was why Luisa’s position of spirit-reader was so important to the tribe. Her job as a spirit shaman literally meant life or death.
And now she had received the message that evil was coming to the valley. It was coming by train . . .