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Another California

Wellsir, the way I heard it, Vanderhofen he walked directly into that... that torrent, and he never give a try to swimming. The deputy sheriff he'd just told him about the two girls, about not finding their bodies I mean, and Vanderhofen he'd stood there for a minute, then wandered real slow toward Coyote's Cataract right below his cabin like he was looking for his poor lost kids, then he was in the current before anyone realized what he was doing. It was like the river just swallowed him, that deputy told me. They never did find the body. They never found none of 'em. The Kern River there, that danged cascade, it just chews folks up, batters 'em to pieces. A terrible thing.

        So now he's dead, and that big project of his is too. His cabin's still there across the river above what us locals like to call Nee-Chee-Say-Too, that's Indian for Coyote's Cataract. The cable's rusting and the suspension car is locked on this side. No one but me's used it since his relatives come and cleaned out his and the kids' personal effects. He never had a wife that I saw or heard about. All that's left of his work is what's in these papers of his, and they sure don't amount to much.

"When the world was dry and all the things was so dry and thirsty, Coyote begun fasting and dancing and singing until finally Earth Father come to him and asked what he wanted. Coyote said, 'The people are dying of thirst, the plants are dying of thirst, the animals are dying of thirst, the rocks are dying of thirst, we are all dying of thirst.' And Earth Father took pity and tore open the great mountains and they bled the purest, coolest water to save the world. That is how Mother River was bom and that is why Coyote loves her."
         Sally Joe, informant
         (recorded by R.L.V., 5/18/22)

        I still recollect that first time Vanderhofen ever come by here. He was with a group from the Kern County Museum that stopped at my place for coffee on their way on up the canyon. They was looking for Indian stuff—you know, mortars, rock drawings, old campsites — so I give 'em a few tips, exchanged a few snappy sayings with this one cute little number. The rest, they looked like if you put 'em on the street the cops might mark their legs with yellow chalk.

        I come here from Kansas City over three years ago, running this juice joint, and doing real good too I might add. If you can't make money in California, you can't make money is what I always say. But, anyways, those Hatlanders that come up here, well, they're all something, and that bunch wasn't no exception: a bunch of squirrels.

        This one guy, though, tall and big-shouldered, with puttees and wearing a tie tucked into his flannel shirt, he never smiled, never joked, but he did give me the eye when I was sweet talking that looker. The guy he was real grim and impatient, all the time tapping his foot until the rest of 'em finished their coffee, then he growled something and they all took right off.

        Wellsir, two, maybe three weeks later, he was back. He didn't even order coffee like most would, but just asked, "Can you tell me where a woman named Sally Joe lives?"

        "That old Indian?"

        "She's a Tubatulabal."

        "A what? Old Sal's a Indian."

        "A Tubatulabal."

        "We just call her Indian Sal up this way," I pointed out. I didn't cotton to flatlanders coming up into the canyon and trying to tell me stuff. If he'd been a little smaller I sure would've told him off, you can bet on it.

        "Where does she live?" he asked tonelessly, those big shoulders at my eye level, that tie tucked into his flannel shirt.

        "About a mile up the canyon, you'll see a dirt road from the right where a little arroyo empties. Her cabin's a half mile farther on up that road."

        "Thank you," he replied without smiling, then he was gone.

        "He's a strange one," I told Smitty, the guy that pumps gas for me.

        "And a big one," he added.

May 7, 1922: I have determined that the woman known as Sally Joe (79 yrs) and the man known as Pasatiempo (84 yrs) are the last living speakers of Tubatulabal — a Shoshonean language that was restricted to Kern Canyon — Kroeber says it never had more than a thousand speakers — They are in poor health — The other informants (Roscoe Redbird 49 yrs, Robert Redbird 41 yrs, Julian Lopez 62 yrs) are no more than quarter-bloods and although they recall some traditional stories, their recollection of the language is slight and incomplete — To date I believe I have been able to identify most Tubatulabal phonemes and many morphemes as well — It is clearly a polysynthetic language — It will never be heard again on this Earth after these two informants die — I must work fast.
         R. L. Vanderhofen, Ph.D.
         (diary entry)

        Not more'n a week later, he come back and he had Indian Sal, another old-timer called Pasatiempo, and those two little girls that looked a lot like him in tow. One was, I'd say, maybe four years old, and the other was about a year, year-and-a-half, younger — cute little muffins. Like I said, I never seen a wife with him and he wasn't the kind of guy you questioned too close. Anyways, he walked right into my cafe with those Indians and kids, sat in one of the booths, and bought 'em lunch — I'd never had Indians inside before, never even thought about it, and they probably never had either, I'll bet. They never had any money ever.

        You know, there's those bleeding hearts that cry about the poor Indians this and the poor Indians that, but until we got here, nobody wasn't making any money up this canyon at all. Those darn Indians was up here for years before Americans come and never made a penny, just ate trout and pine nuts is what I'm told. Why, in only three years I turned this place into a gold mine.

        Well, anyways, there was a lot of talking all through lunch, and I kept noticing Vanderhofen — he might even've been one of those bleeding hearts himself — taking notes in this book he carried and saying things to the kids. It was real strange, he was. Robert Lafayette Vanderhofen was the big man's full name, Doctor Robert Lafayette Vanderhofen, but he wasn't any real doctor, the kind that can give medicine. Wellsir, he pretty soon was up here all the time, bringing those two old Indians into my place three or four times a week, always with those little girls, too, and sometimes he'd have other Indians in tow — Robert Redbird, Roscoe Redbird, and old Julian. I couldn't for the life of me figure what was going on, but he paid hard cash.

        Then Vanderhofen he bought the Starrett cabin across the river close to my cafe just above Coyote's Cataract. It was a nice little place, the cabin, on an old mining claim. To cross the river there you had to ride that suspension car that Starrett he'd installed back when he thought he was going to be in the chips: a real heavy cable anchored in rocks on both sides with a little car dangling from it that you operated with a pulley. Since it's next to impossible to cross the river anywheres up here in Kern Canyon except in real dry years, there wasn't nobody going to bother him when he was on the other side of it with his cable car pulled over there. To me, it always seemed like a real lonely place.

"One time Coyote wanted Mother River to love him and he visited her all the time and talked to her and begged her, but she was true to Earth Father. So Coyote— he was white then like the moon— he determined to trick her into loving him so he rolled himself in mud and dirt until only his d----- belly was white, and he came to her and said he was Earth Father, but when she let him touch her, some of the mud and dirt washed off and she was very angry and almost drowned him before he escaped. After he ran away he realized he could not wash the mud stains from his back and his head, and that is why he is still stained brown."
         Pasatiempo, informant
         (recorded by R.L.V., 4/21/22)

        Wellsir, one day I run into Vanderhofen in the grocery store up at Kernville and, seeing as we was neighbors, I just asked real casual why he'd chose such a out-of-the-way location, there above Nee-Chee-Say-Too. He measured me for a minute and I wished I hadn't said nothing, then he almost whispered, "My work requires privacy." That was all. He had those two little girls with him and they both give me the sweetest little hellos, but a second later while I tried to make pleasant conversation with their father, I heard or half-heard, really, them talking to each other in some sort of strange mixture of lingos, English but all messed up by something else. I couldn't savvy 'em.

        Their father the doctor, he never did say what he was working on and, looking at those big shoulders and that grim face, I decided not to push the issue, but I was curious because I'd every once in awhile see him toting Sally Joe or Pasatiempo across the river in that cable car, them looking real scared at Coyote's Cataract that had all the Indians spooked, or he'd bring them into my place of business, along with his two girls. In fact, it seemed like those two Indians was always with the little girls. I'd've been careful if it was me, I'll tell you.

        More and more when they'd come in, they was jabbering, even old stone-face Vanderhofen some of the time, but mostly it was those two little kids and the old Indians, Sal and Pasatiem chuckling and carrying on like they was with their own grandchildren. They'd go on and on and I never really caught what they said — I was afraid to get too close because I didn't want that Vanderhofen to think I was eavesdropping — but they seemed like they was having a big time. And that Vanderhofen he was scribbling notes, always scribbling notes.

Feb. 27, 1923: Sally Joe died suddenly but my plan has worked beyond my wildest dreams. — Both Betsy and Martha are now fluent in Tubatulabal — We have saved a language as old as time. — It happened far more quickly than I had imagined possible. — My own efforts to learn the language are slow and halting. — It is a singularly difficult tongue to master but somehow the children grasp it easily — Thanks to my girls, we have defied history!
         R. L. Vanderhofen, Ph.D.
         (diary entry)

        Anyways, not long after old Indian Sal passed away, this young guy that worked for the Kern County Museum he come up from Bakersfield to visit the doctor, and he stopped at my place to ask for directions, so I give him a cup of coffee on the house and quizzed him a little, and danged if he didn't come right out and tell me what was up. It seems that Vanderhofen he was making a book of that Indian talk, such as it was.

        Wellsir, I'd heard Indian Sal and old Pasatiempo once or twice over the years myself when they was around my place and let me tell you they never had no real language at all, just a lot of grunts. And that was Vanderhofen's big work. Me, I'd had him pegged for some kind of mad scientist, making a bomb or something important, not just writing down how a couple broke-down old Indians talked. A waste of danged time if you was to ask me. It sure as hell takes all kinds...

"One time Coyote he couldn't find no woman to, you know, stick his p----- in, so he snuck up to Mother River where she was all soft and slow and real pretty and he unrolled his big long p----- and, you know, stuck it into her. Just when he got to pumping, the river she clamped down and he couldn't pull out and his p----- it started jumping like a trapped snake and Coyote he was roaring and scratching and the river there she churned all up and churned all up until finally, you know, she snapped his p----- off and that's why he's got just a little red nub now, all sore. And the place where he did that to her it's that big cataract, you know, Ni'chisa'tu that means p----- of Coyote still churning and you can still hear Coyote roaring if you go there. And sometimes Indians would go there to fish and not come back and nobody could ever find them. That's because Coyote's p-----, you know, it lured them and got them. And that is where all the Indians have gone. Coyote's p----- is angry because Mother River loves them, and it, you know, likes to trick those Indians and take them."
         Roscoe Redbird, informant
         (recorded by R.L.V., 3/1/23)

        Wellsir, old Pasatiempo he had a stroke and when they found him at his place they rushed him down to the county hospital in Bakersfield. I heard that he was paralyzed and couldn't talk no more at all. I don't know for sure because he never come back. Robert Redbird he told me that Vanderhofen visited the old man down there real often. I wouldn't know that either because by then the doctor he'd stopped coming into my place much, except once in a great while he'd bring those girls by for a Coke. Mostly, though, they kept to themselves over there across the river just above Nee-Chee-Say-Too with their cable car pulled to their own side.

        Once when I was out fishing I saw him sitting near the cabin on a log with those cute little muffins and it looked like he was reading something, and so was they, as little as they was. He looked different that time, not so stern, and the girls they was laughing. I waved and those two cuties waved back. Vanderhofen nodded. It sure did seem like a lonely life to me.

May 6, 1923: Not only have Betsy and Martha learned the language, they have now committed to memory the tales I recorded from Sally Joe, Pasatiempo, Roscoe, Robert, and Julian — They are my loves and my life — Why has no one else, not even Kroeber, thought to record these God-given languages as I have — Children must be taught a language by native speakers so that it will truly live and be perpetuated; it is the only answer — With children the cultures can be saved before they are entirely lost — Whole ways of seeing and being may be saved — Another, nearly forgotten, California may be preserved.
         R. L. Vanderhofen, Ph.D.
         (diary entry)

        I don't know what possessed those two little girls to try to ride the cable car across the river on their own or how they got up strength enough to pull themselves out as far as they did. It just don't make sense and it's so danged sad. Anyways, this truck driver he happened to be going by uphill on the road and he seen them fall into the river, almost like they was jumping in he said, so he pulled into my place and I right away called the sheriff, then me and Smitty and the driver we rushed over to the river, but there really wasn't nothing we could do, I knew, except hope to find the bodies. Folks they fall in or try to swim here every year and if you don't get to 'em right now, they're gone. Poor little muffins.

        Where the hell was Vanderhofen, that's what we all wanted to know. He never left those kids alone. Never ever. We finally managed to get over to the cabin to look for himme and Smitty had to snag that suspension car and pull it over then ride it back over to the other side of the river while the sheriff's boys tried to find the bodies. Wellsir, we discovered Julian Lopez asleep — you know how old guys nod off. I guess he was the baby-sitter, but it didn't matter no more, did it?

        When I told what'd happened, old Julian he just collapsed. I figured him for dead, but he wasn't, so me and Smitty, we got him to that suspension car and across the river so the ambulance boys that was there could look at him. And the truth is, he's never been the same since that day. It's like he died too. Anyways, that's when Vanderhofen drove up. He'd been down to Bakersfield visiting Pasatiempo at the county hospital. I was already back at my place then so I never seen what happened next, him walking into that cataract I mean, but they never found his body, we never, because us locals kept looking for a good week. The river got 'em.

        Wellsir, since there wasn't no local relatives, I made a offer through a lawyer on the old Starrett place and it was accepted. It was a real good buy if I do say so myself, and I'm not noted for making bad ones. Vanderhofen's kin from back east they'd pretty much cleaned out all his valuables, but I found this one box full of junk. There was a diary full of crazy notes and all these papers, some with a kind of code on them, squiggles and dashes and funny letters, plus a bunch of silly stories, just kids' stuff like this one:

"Here is what my grandmother told me: Many years ago there was no world only empty sound and Mother River was sad. 'I need children and a world for them,' she said, and she called to Earth Father but he couldn't understand her words because they were only empty sound. So she prayed and prayed until she kept getting smaller and tighter and her sound kept getting tighter and smaller until it was a terrible hiss that shook the heavens and opened the earth, and finally Earth Father understood and he said, 'You will be my wife and we will make a world and we will make our children.' That is how she made our language and how our language made our world."
         Julian Lopez, informant
         (recorded by R. L. V., 6/9/23)

        You see what I mean? Can you imagine a grown man, a so-called doctor, spending all his time writing down that kind of stuff and not taking good care of his kids, letting them fall into Nee-Chee-Say-Too? Not me, I can tell you that much. Where I come from his kind wouldn't be tolerated. And his work, his great work — hah! All that paper'll do is start a fire for me. It's not worth a dime.


Another California originally appeared in That Constant Coyote: California Stories [1990], which is still available from University of Nevada Press [Click Here!].

That Constant Coyote: California Stories was the winner in 1990 of the Josephine Miles National Literary Award from PEN Oakland.

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