From the Author: “The Birthday Party” is part of a chapter in a novel I’m
working on, about Vincent Taylor, a young First American of the Salinan Tribe whose native homeland is Monterey County (Salinas, King City area). Vincent is an Assistant Professor of Botany at a small college. He is well on his way to becoming accepted among his people as a shaman. Torn between his native identity and his scientific background, Vincent has to cope with his girlfriend’s refusal to marry him once she discovers he isn’t what she supposed. Ernie is the four-year-old son from that relationship. In “The Birthday Party,” Vincent introduces Ernie to his father’s heritage.
“We have something special to do today.”
“Cause I’m gonna be four?”
“That’s right, son.”
They got in Vincent’s old truck and drove down to Salinas River. They walked the back way in, took an old trail.
“Is this where, Dad?”
Vincent put down his pack.
“You’re going to help me find a few things we need.” And the two set off. “You know how to make your feet light and quiet?”
Ernie, alert, became the freckled fawn on spindly legs. He eyed all of nature around him. He moved forward. Stopped, looked. Smiled at his dad.
“That’s right,” Vincent said to the fleet, agile Deer Boy, Ernie. He lowered his voice. “You have your feet flat? See, like this. Quiet enough to sneak by a rabbit or lizard without disturbing them.”
“We leave them alone,” Ernie whispered back.
“Unless we’re hungry.”
They walked along, deer quiet. Little things became big. Birds rustled in the brush. Leaves rubbed together. Crow in the distance. Vincent used his eyes or lips to point, to indicate this piece of sage or that dried brown buckwheat flower. He collected small pieces of plants.
“Look at the sun there and see what we have on the ground here?”
They saw the shadow of a boy and of his father connect into one.
Vincent nodded. “Pay attention to your shadow. Anything your shadow touches, wakes up.”
“We can wake up a tree?”
“It’s a living thing, son.”
Vincent picked up some dry logs near a fallen tree.
A little farther Ernie stopped. Vincent stopped.
“Beetles, Dad.” Instead of using his fingers to point, Ernie used his eyes to indicate the direction of his find.
Vincent nodded. They both crouched to look at the beetles. Vincent broke off a small handful of some nearby rye grass to put in his pouch. Ernie helped.
“Time to go back,” Vincent said. “Let’s look around the cottonwoods. There’ll be one of these branches somewhere that wants to go with us.” When he found it, he showed Ernie how to erase their visit by tapping and brushing the leaves on the ground.
“See? Footprints gone.”
This had to be done with care, not to leave a line or gouge mark. Vincent broke off part of his branch to give Ernie a small one, and in this way they returned to the spot where they started.
Vincent prepared to build a fire. First, he used bits of dried grass.
“Help me break these little sticks, and put them here.” He handed the twigs to his son.
“Like this, Dad?”
Vincent gave him a nod and together they built a fire.
“Look, I’m going to burn some of this dried sage.”
They breathed in together, the sweet and pungent smell. Vincent moved his hands over the smoke, drawing it over his body first, then over his son, then upward.
“Who are you talking to, Dad?”
“Relatives,” he said.
“Eh ho,” came the voice of Vincent’s uncle and little nephew.
“Eh ho,” Vincent and Ernie answered. “We-see-you-before-us-and-say-welcome.”
“I’m so glad you’ve come,” Vincent continued. “Here is my son, Ernie.”
“A fine boy,” Uncle said. “Got something to show you, Little One. Come with us to the river.”
The two boys stood looking at each other.
“What’s your name?” Ernie said.
“They call me Perfecto,” answered Nephew. “Come on.”
At the river they took off their shoes and socks, rolled up pant legs, then Uncle showed them how to build a rock trap in the muddy Salinas.
Uncle looked at Vincent. “Last chance to hand fish before that stone and concrete dam at Santa Margarita Lake chokes ‘em all out.”
Vincent shook his head. “Mighty Steelhead, we pray for you, brothers. It’s a hard life, but we’re still here. They did their best to choke us out, too.”
“Lookie here,” Uncle broke in. “We got some trout already. Try to catch one.”
Uncle grabbed. “A beauty.” He held it up for Ernie to see the silvery sparkle and dark dotted body.
Nephew splashed. Ernie tried and Vincent worked at catching one. Soon they walked out of the cold water to dry their feet and warm up. Vincent took the forked stick full of wriggling trout.
“Taa-u,” he said. “To-thank-you-for-offering-yourselves-to-us.”
He gutted their lunch and put the fish on the fire. Fish eyes cooked white.
When Vincent added a pinch of buckwheat petals to his fire, they heard a woman singing.
“Hellooo,” came the happy voice.
“Eh ho,” answered the relatives sitting around the fire. “Auntie, you made it.”
“Listen here, I know you’re going to want some pinole. What’s a party without pinole? And how about some of these?” she held out a basket of berries.
“This is my son, Ernie.”
“Try them, Little One. They’re sweet, from the Strawberry Tree.” And she set the basket down for them all to eat.
Vincent took dried yucca flowers and wild grape leaves out of his pack. Some, he sprinkled on the trout for flavor, some to feed the fire. “Shall we eat?”
“Boys will be here soon. You’ll need your energy, Ernie.” Uncle turned to call for Perfecto. “He misses this place.”
Uncle took a pinch of fish and another of berry. “In memory of all our relatives, eh ho. You guys are missing a nice party.”
“Eh ho,” they all said. And ate fish, with bread, pinole, sweet berries.
Then, they all played stickball when Cousins arrived. Even Auntie.
Dried Alder bark crumbled in Vincent’s hand. He added a bit of Black Oak Tree pollen and let both fall into the fire with kind words.
“Eh-ho,” they all greeted the Grandmas. “We-see-you-and-honor-your-presence-and wisdom.”
Young ones stopped long enough for someone to ask, “Still making sticky pies, Grandma?”
“Play.” She smiled. “We’ll warm our hands at the fire.”
The cool breeze came early as it needed to for November. The relatives gathered around the fire.
“Time to eat pie?” the boys asked.
“Wait,” said the Elder. “As is befitting the age of four, Ernie Taylor, is welcomed and celebrated.”
“Eh ho,” they all agreed.
Ernie looked up at Vincent.
“For you, son.”
The Wise One continued, “He has shown us respect. He has walked quiet as a deer, played as hard as he could in Shinny. His roots go deeper than the tallest Oak. Your family, Little One, is in the water you touch, the air you breathe. If you ever need us, you will find us. Happy Birthday.”
She went to touch his cheek.
Vincent, ready to place a laurel leaf on the fire, stopped. “Here.” He handed his son the leaf. “I’ll help you. We keep this distance to respect fire.” They dropped the leaf. And the warmth felt good.
Everyone ate sticky pie.
A dog barked. Out from the willows that line the river, came a brown puppy, not so much a puppy, but a dog. Soft, so soft on the sides of his ears that hung down. Ernie petted his new friend. His fur, brown and black. They knew what to do and turned and ran until together cousins, Auntie, Uncle, Perfecto, everyone chased and laughed.
Then, the Grandmas rose to leave. Everyone stopped. “Here, Little One.” A long brown string, a small rectangle tied at the bottom, and on the other side an iridescent sea shell.
Not an ordinary scapular. Nothing ordinary about the day.
“This shell is yours. You are Salinan. We are proud.”
Vincent repeated, “We are all Salinan. Everyone here today.”
Ernie stared at the shell hidden by the book at the end of the string. He couldn’t stop looking, not even for happy birthday.
When he heard the hiss of the fire, he looked up to see his dad pouring water over the embers. That’s when he saw they’d all gone.
The dog barked.
Ernie grabbed the giant wooden spoon-stick he’d used in stickball and ran to the path they’d come on, calling after them, “You forgot something.”
“Son, they left it for you.”
Ernie stopped. One slow step at a time, deer quiet, he looked side to side with his secret shell still on the string in his hand and then ran back to his dad. He motioned for Vincent to come closer to hear the quietest words.
Ernie cupped his hands at the sides of his mouth. “No footprints.”