Four Pestles on a Pounding Stone
Parking in the dirt by a load of rubbish near Fancher Creek, Justin pulled up the parking brake: No one in the immediate vicinity. He grabbed the buck knife from the glove compartment, slid it onto his belt, then trotted across Watt's Valley Road, an oiled, single-lane road which snakes through one deserted Native American village site after another in the lower foothills. Before he jumped up on the rock and stepped over the barbed wire, however, he noticed Fresno faintly etched in the distance, so he quickly turned back and checked the car doors and lights again.
The area safer than most city streets, he could keep hiking all the way to the Kings River if he wanted to, his path only blocked by orchards just before he got to the river. Cows might ignore him or stampede in complete terror away from him (or toward him), quail would occasionally burst out of shrubs, coyotes would pause and gaze and lope off as if hoping to be chased back to the lair. He might encounter a bobcat or a mountain lion or a rattlesnake, but with his buck knife he was ready for almost anything.
Most of the paths on the bluffs converged in the floodplain of the creek, whose bed miles away had functioned as the Valley's first irrigation ditch for a farmer who lured the railroad, the catalyst of growth for Fresno, to the area. Justin chose a favorite path, noting all the pounding stones and pestles and house pits along the way that had apparently evaded the normal sight of the average trespasser, and perhaps of even the rancher, for over a century. After his first discoveries, Justin had trained himself to notice flat stones where he might find round holes filled with water or earth and grass and leaves, slightly tapered stones possibly used for grinding, and midden earth in oblong or circular indentations in the ground. These, along with the paths kept distinct by cattle and horses, were the only signs of a civilization that had flourished in the area for thousands of years, gone now over a century, in which time the city had grown one pop-n-fresh neighborhood after another, subdivisions leap-frogging toward the hills.
It was hotter than he had expected. He had planned to hike for a mile or two in his work clothes, but after only about half a mile, he was hungry and thirsty and unusually tired, so he took a detour to his favorite pounding stone, where ten pestles still rested. As he approached the pounding stone he saw a bobcat in the distance stalking something in the grass, suddenly pouncing, then carrying a squirrel away in its teeth. After the bobcat skulked away, Justin found the site of the kill dotted by feces and stained by a streak of blood, far less gore than he had expected.
A squirrel in the rocks was chirping loudly in fear or grief, or both, even though Justin was only a few feet away. Justin at first thought that he was only projecting human emotions onto the squirrel, but he had never before heard a squirrel make such a racket, even though it was still in danger because the bobcat, and Justin, were both in the vicinity. The squeals may have functioned as an alarm, but to Justin, after a minute, they began to resemble sounds of utter despair.
Justin sat down on the pounding stone as the squirrel's cries began to taper off. He had been unable to grieve at his own father's funeral. No tears. No moans. No outward display of emotion. He leaned against a tree and closed his eyes. In his mind's eye, he saw his father's coffin in the funeral chapel, so he cleared his mind. Having a mind clear of even the woodlands was more pleasant than he had expected. After a while a few images flickered across the screen, but he cleared everything away again by focusing on blackness, going into the gap between words, between sounds.
He imagined himself climbing a tree, the leaves wet with dew like tiny stars, and golden eagles wheeling around it. As he reached the middle of the tree, he gazed at the sky and saw, not the sun, but a bright, golden, equal-armed cross hanging, completely still, in the blue. Floating at each end of the cross was an indistinct angel, each one dressed in a colored robe, one blue, one red, one yellow, and one white. He continued to stare at the cross, hoping that each angel would become clearer, and suddenly he was bathed in a warm, golden light, which felt so good that he didn't want to move. He continued to rise, nevertheless, almost against his will, as though he were floating upward, not climbing. People and cars in the Valley below moved slowly in the distance, all utterly impermanent and insignificant, as he rose closer to a brilliant light more intense than sunlight. He looked at his hands, which were empty. His entire body was empty, only transparent, crystalline light. All was emptiness except for the light, which permeated everything. At the light's edge, his mind truly became blank for a moment. He was only a spark, a point of consciousness.
Suddenly he heard a loud shuffling sound and with a jerk came back to himself. Only a squirrel scurrying through dry leaves. He had instinctively grabbed for his buck knife, but he couldn't pull it out because it was held in its sheath by a button. Gazing at the pounding stone, he noticed that two pestles were still in the mortars, with grass growing out at the edges. The stone was silent, communicating nothing about the people who had pounded acorns there for millinia. He stepped into one of the house pits. In his mind's eye he saw a Yokut's woman, light moving over her face and shoulders, as though he were envisioning either her image reflected in a pool, or the light from a pool of water reflected on her shoulders and face. Then, adrenalin shot through him as he recognized that the image could be like the reflection of someone in water, possibly himself in another life. He felt as if something were tugging at his ankles and shins and that he could drop in a second into another order, as though through the center of the earth out to the other side, yet he felt at the same time that he was being presented with some choice, as though he were standing in the shallows of a pool, looking out toward the deep. The Yokuts often buried their dead in the earth under their houses, and he imagined his mind somehow mingling with the mind of the Yokut's woman, as if time were an ocean, as if he were somehow part of all of the energy fields of the world throughout human history and beyond.
And it was empty. The act of putting one foot in front of another, empty. The act of thinking, empty. The city in the distance, growing like an anthill a moment before, gone in the silence a century or a millineum. Justin gazed at a baby blue eye, no longer Justin but the eternal gazing at itself, the observer and the observed and the process of observation. He was the flower and the stone and the oaks, a point of consciousness within a tapestry of infinite consciousness, and he felt the pressure of innumerable points of consciousness communicating with him in the heat in countless messages that he couldn't understand.
He felt a timeless, eternal emptiness, the emptiness of form. Within seconds he again separated himself mentally from his surroundings, out of habit, carrying with him both the sense of timelessness which imbues everything in the woods and the realization that he was losing the sense of oneness. As he reached his car, he regretted that he was returning home sooner than he had planned, so he headed to an old, disintegrating road, partially on private property and partially on public property, which sloped down to Sycamore Creek.
Sliced by rivulets and broken up by roots, the road, unused for decades, sloped down half a mile to a "gauging station" by the creek, a measuring stick still cemented in the creek bed. Although it appeared that no other signs of civilization existed for miles, hidden by bushes on the other side of the creek, the remains of a stone wall still stood next to two piles of rocks, both the size of graves. A mile beyond the confluence of the two creeks, the walls of another stone house stood, the stones on top pulled down for six other piles, also the size of graves, nearby.
The first time he had trespassed, Justin knew when to stray from the old road into the grass to the pounding stone on the ridge, perhaps because the faint rushing sound in the distance pulled him from the road or because he had noticed a trail etched in the grass, but because of his excursions in the foothills he had begun to believe in retrocognition. He couldn't see the past, like a truly gifted psychic, but on occasion had known with overwhelming certainty, in places that he had never been before, where he would find trails and pounding stones. Once, sitting on a pounding stone, he actually heard the laughter of women, as if the earth and the stones were all to some degree conscious and retained the memory of all that had transpired, and he could access that memory because he could tap into the timeless consciousness in moments of profound stillness.
Several times during a long hike, possibly because of the heat, he had felt himself, as he sat in the shade near trails thousands of years old, part of an ocean of consciousness holding all time. He was the rock, the tree, the squirrel--his consciousness not just a wave but the ocean itself. He also extrapolated that he was also one with every human being but dismissed that thought immediately.
When he had first started trespassing, he had dismissed the possibility of finding house pits as unlikely because at least a hundred years had passed since the tribe had occupied the area. For a long time, he had believed that resting cattle had made the indentations in the ground, but after witnessing many abandoned village sites, he finally understood, with a slight shiver, the significance of circular hollows near pounding stones.
Obviously he could not prove that where he stood uncountable generations had loved and slept and given birth and died, not after one hundred years. He couldn't prove that settlers (probably all killed around the same time) were buried under those piles of rocks unless he wanted to dig up the bones, and he lacked both the time and the stomach for that. Showing how those settlers had taken over an ancient village site would change nothing. Proving that an ancient civilization once thrived there would not keep the area from being developed. Far worse had happened there already with the help of the government: most of the tribe had been killed or driven onto a reservation where the members succumbed to alcoholism and disease and starvation, the most recent generations growing rich from the casinos. He was quite certain of one thing after finding many abandoned village sites along the creeks in the lower foothills: after a point no mercy had been shown anyone. And history, he suspected, without a major change in the human psyche, would keep repeating itself.
He counted the mortars in the pounding stone again and stared above the tops of the sycamores to the ridge on the other side, squinting to see a hint of the other pounding stones across the creek, his gaze finally following a slope down to another ancient village site about a half mile away on a small hill above Sycamore Creek. He tried with his binoculars to make out the trail that led on that slope to the village site near the ruins of the stone house, again without success, but he could make out without difficulty the house being built on the ridge half a mile away.
He could still go out on a little night hike, since no one was living in the house yet, douse the wood with gasoline and light a match, and no one would know he had started the fire, in all probability. This was his window of opportunity. He decided then to hike on the trail next to the creek, past other pounding stones, climbing over barbed wire to the building site.
Standing on a slope overlooking the creek, the house was less than a mile from a hub of ancient Native American trails where a rancher had dropped blocks of salt. On a forty acre lot, the house was ostentatious, commanding a view of a large territory he had explored for years, with only cattle witnessing his intrusions. In that area alone he had found a pestle collection and three pounding stones with pestles still in the mortars. Two of the trails led over a hill down to a huge abandoned Yokuts village next to another creek several miles away. For sale signs had popped up all along the road advertisizing other forty acre lots, with wells and utilities.
Each time he had trespassed in the hills, photographing the artifacts and the rare or threatened species, he had imagined himself spearheading an effort to preserve the lower foothills, pressuring government officials to buy up development rights along a fifteen mile stretch where ancient village sites were still connected by a network of continuous trails thousands of years old. The ranchers obviously did not go beyond their own land. No one else seemed aware of the sigficance of the trails or the mortars or the pestles. (He estimated that about one out of eight pounding stones he had discovered still, unbelievably, had pestles on or near them.) A freeway extension was being constructed in the valley just over ten miles away from the main village site at the base of the hill, but along the creeks, little had changed for over one hundred years except for that house.
He sat down on a pile of wood and pulled out a box of matches from his backpack. He struck the match and let it burn down to his fingers. The house where he had grown up was still at the end of its street, nondescript, occupied by another family for many years. This mansion was being built for elites, promising seclusion and happiness for the family that would live there. Justin's family, on the other hand, had been a failed experiment. Justin was seventeen when his father died, and Justin discovered that his family members harbored little sympathy for each other. They couldn't grieve together, and soon the family dispersed. They still saw each other occasionally at Christmas.
The thought occurred to him that he was in a fire of illusion, which made him chuckle for a second as he lit another match. Little was left of what had been his family, a family that he had considered normal and well-adjusted before the day his father died. After ten or twenty or thirty thousand years of occupying the area, the tribe was totally gone. He had failed to hold most of his relationships together. He had failed to hold a job for more than five years (though that was not entirely his fault given the nature of capitalism--he was expendable like everyone else.)
He wanted his life to matter, so he would have to be careful about losing himself too much in the timelessness of the woods. He let the match singe his fingertips. This mansion was the first sign of urban sprawl that in the next twenty or thirty years was going to engulf the foothills. The last traces of a whole race would be wiped out in the process, conveniently eliminating all signs of genocide committed by a system spreading into the far corners of the earth, ecocide the logical partner of genocide.
He held up the flame, hearing woodpeckers cackle and the peeps of bushtits, the air growing cool. Being an activist in the Central Valley was like stepping with a bow and arrow into a mine field to face the tanks of a well-equiped army; he would have to continue by fighting an anonymous, covert war alone until they caught up with him. He, for instance, was stuck in stupid jobs, working as a substitute teacher and also as a part-time instructor at a rural community college for fifteen years (without benefits). The vast majority of the teachers he subbed for could not write a one-page lesson plan free of grammar or punctuation errors, yet he suspected he would never be hired as a full-time teacher even if he went back to school for a credential. Anyone who attacked the system, he'd noticed, was sooner or later slapped down (usually sooner, if effective) and they were not forgotten by those in power, only by the public. A few had lost jobs, professionals had been slandered with impunity, organizations had closed down because of bogus lawsuits, one activist, a teacher, was fined and bankrupted for using his democratic right to sue the government for higher review of a local land use decision (perhaps the judge had neglected to read the constitution). He had witnessed activists threatened and blackballed by developers and government officials alike.
He felt spaced out, a little unsteady on his feet, unable to belch, with pain in his joints, all symptoms of his allergies. He had indulged in several pieces of toast (which contained corn) at breakfast and was suffering the consequences. If he ate any more corn, he would risk feeling severe muscle and joint pain, fatigue, and depression; he might have difficulty functioning at his job the next day. If he continued eating it despite the warning signs he would begin to believe he had cancer or some other terminal illness, and would feel hopeless. He would be unable to function in jail. He felt at peace in the woods; he even felt a kinship with the rocks, a kinship that he had felt with only a few human beings.
He indulged again in self pity, which at least kept him from losing himself completely in the stillness. Even though the cause of his sickness was the chemical contamination of food and air and water, no one could avoid the fact that he was often fatigued, depressed, nauseated, aching, nearly always, therefore, without much energy, except sometimes in the woods where he could breath fresh air. Relationships and jobs had ended because he couldn't hold it together, not knowing from one moment to the next if he would feel too sick suddenly to function, for no reason apparent to anyone else. He sat still. His life was significant now in relation to what surrounded him, no more and no less significant than the tribe members before him, no more and no less than the buckeyes and sycamores and oaks, the bluebirds and the juncos, the rosinweed and blue curl.
Wouldn't it be nice to burn up this entire sorry civilization, he thought for just a second, every last bit of it. He should feel anger like a clean flame (he chuckled), not self-pity or even mercy, and he should let it burn out all the corrupted places, cauterizing as much of the cancer as possible, not just a little bit.
He was making a speech again in his head. Sighing, he put the box of matches away and sat extinguished in the growing darkness. He envisioned a white flame at the crown of his head,the flame forming a crown at the supernal centers of his being, the centers of the spirit, the flame stretching down to his heart, then down to his groin and feet. He was on fire while everything around him was swirling, transient, empty.
Bats looped silently overhead, the sun kindling the bare branches of the oaks in the distance. The moss-covered stone, cold in the light, now seemed almost as warm as an animal in the cooling air. The buckeyes and sycamores smelled dusty and wet at the same time, the creek still gurgling, making more sense than he could ever understand and no sense at all. The first lights were appearing in the valley and the sky, one constellation on the ground for a moment appearing to reflect another in the sky. He got up and hiked back on the trail toward his car.
Follow the next trail.
Meet the fellow in the Three of Wands.
Follow a vanishing trail.