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Dance of the Condor

 

The great bird’s shadow crossed his trail again, almost as if tracking him. Don Felipe tipped his broad-brimmed hat to look up, the condor so close now he could see its scarlet eye. He should have brought his gun. The huge vultures were everywhere, a black pestilence, eating cattle, calves, even seal carcasses. He brought his horse to a halt at the crest of the hill to look out over his land—the Rancho Los Cumbres, rolling hills that marched from the sea to the high mountains, with scores of brown cattle grazing in the seamed hills among the oaks. Below lay the oasis that was his hacienda, the green well of its courtyard surrounded by curved red roof tiles.

The huge bird passed low enough for Felipe to hear the wind in its wings, like the blades of a great windmill, but deeper, more musical. His horse shied, stepped sideways. Even the spirited horses of the Californios were uneasy around these large vultures with the white wing patches..

Don Felipe started down the slope as his wife Maria Teresa emerged from the shaded porch below. The condor dipped, leveling into a glide over the hacienda. Maria Teresa glanced up and began to run, her long skirt billowing. Felipe could hear her faint scream. Near the corral, their little daughter Guadalupe dragged a toy through the dust. Felipe kicked his horse into a gallop, his eyes on his daughter. The vulture’s shadow, the size of a ship, sailed over Guadalupe, engulfing her in darkness for an instant. With a single flap, the bird passed on, gained height and soared over the scattered outbuildings.

Maria Teresa was holding Guadalupe, crooning to her, when Felipe drew up. He flung himself from his horse and took the child in his arms to kiss her warm cheek. Maria Teresa’s black hair, loosened from its combs, hung over her face. She cupped her belly, hands on the growing child within. A nino this time, Felipe was certain, a son with iron in his spine, who would ride beside him and take on the work of this new land. With his finger, Felipe looped a silken lock behind his wife’s ear. Never again would she be frightened.

“I will kill this bird,” he promised. “And all his kind.” Two vaqueros walked from the leather works, wiping oily hands on their aprons. “Shoot the big vultures,” Don Felipe told them. “A silver coin for every head.”

The men nodded, smiling at the prospect of what the silver would buy in the pueblo of Santa Barbara. Soon the slaughter of bullocks would begin and the stripping of hides for the Yankee traders in their schooners. The great vultures would gather to gorge on the carcasses.

“Holhol.” The medicine man Jose shuffled forward. The old Indian curandero earned his keep tending the garden. He stopped nearby, barefoot, his ragged serape trailing burrs. “Big bird, Holhol,” he repeated in a mixture of Chumash and Spanish, the words like a chant. He pointed the handle of his hoe upward. “Sky people.”

Felipe set his daughter down. “The big birds threaten our children and carry off our calves,” he said.

Jose shook his gray head. He lifted a gnarled hand to point again. “He looks for dog, not child.”

Fifty yards away Felipe saw a collapsed brown bundle, one of the ranch dogs that had died. Why had it not been buried? He looked at the old man’s face, creviced like bark, black eyes revealing nothing. “Bury the dog,” he said.

 

The feast was noisy. Condors, vultures and ravens gathered in widening circles around a dead cow. Farthest out, ravens cawed and quarreled with each other, waiting for their chance at the carcass. Closer in, common vultures hissed at the encroaching ravens. At the center, two condors, nearly sated, jerked at the cow’s entrails.  

Birds scattered and lifted as Felipe and his foreman Ramon rode up. The condors ran, clumsy on flat feet, flapping their wings, trying for air. They were like sated old men, Felipe thought, too full even to fly. Ramon’s lariat sang as he rode alongside. His lasso slipped over the fleeing bird’s red neck, and Ramon snapped the line hard, jerking the condor off its feet. His mare shied at the frantic churning of wings and dust, then bolted, trying to outrun the tornado of dirt, feathers and gore trailing behind it. The condor, wings splayed, pummeled earth, careening off rocks and snapping chaparral. Felipe  galloped alongside his foreman until the man brought his horse to a halt. Ramon slipped from his saddle, drew his knife and sawed at the bird’s ugly red neck. He held up the bloody head for Don Felipe to see. It was deep purple and featherless, unnatural, like a piece of gut. The beak was a curve of dark horn, the tip sharp. Gray membranes shuttered the red eyes. Felipe shifted his gaze to the battered carcass. The condor’s feet were blue-gray, as large as a man’s hand, with short nails, not the talons he’d expected. A bird with such feet couldn’t grasp and lift, couldn’t carry away a lamb or a child, couldn’t carry anything.

Don Felipe ordered that the heads be nailed to the gate of an unused corral. Three already baked in the sun by the time the bullock slaughter began for the hide-seeking Yankees. Felipe’s vaqueros rounded up cattle from canyons and creekside, drove them into groups and shot them. Men skinned the carcasses where they lay, slung the dripping hides onto wagons and carried them off to sheds for curing and drying. They left most of the meat to rot.

Carrion birds circled the sites, covering the remains in a heaving black storm.  Vaqueros rode in and shot condors on the ground and in the air as they fled. The row of blackened stubs nailed to the gate grew, and Felipe paid out silver to his men. Jose the curandero refused to go near the corral, carrying his corn and squash behind the outbuildings on his way to the house.

Fetid odors rode the wind. The rancho was plagued by flying insects. Swarms of black flies with bulbous green eyes gathered in the cook house, flew into the hacienda and tormented Maria Teresa. They crawled on Guadalupe’s face and sipped from the corners of her eyes. Two servants were employed to wave palm fronds to keep them away.

A balance was broken, Jose announced. The flies were a curse by the condor spirit. The great birds were needed to assure the balance between earth and sky. He pulled at the sleeve of Don Felipe’s silk jacket, urging him to follow.

“Where?” Felipe demanded.

“Wind cave,” the old man answered.

His vaqueros had spoken of caves in the hills, but Felipe had never seen them.

“He is there in his cave,” Jose said. “Huyawit.”

Felipe had two horses saddled, and he rode with the curandero into the hills. The old man stopped frequently to gaze up at the sky and study the land. Overhead, a single great bird circled on black sails, navigating the air like a ship. The terrain grew steep and brushy. Jose stopped at an outcropping of sandstone boulders and climbed down from his horse.  Under a shelf of rock yawned the dark slit of a cave.

They crawled through the narrow opening, and once inside, Felipe found he could stand. Dried animal scat and splintered bones littered the sandy floor. As his eyes accustomed to the dimness, paintings on the rock face swam into view. Strange creatures in black, red and white; circles spiraling inward, geometric figures, trails of white dots, insects with horns, lizard-like animals with hands and fingers. A chill gripped him. These things needed to be hidden, kept from the light, buried under rock. The old man pointed to the back of the cave where the rock slanted inward. A condor hovered there, flat and black, head sideways to show the curved beak, wings outstretched, the feathers like pointed stakes, white under-patches glowing. The white seemed to sizzle, phosphorescent. Felipe’s eyes burned; he was dizzy from the cave’s closeness, the old man’s odor, smoky and sour. He steadied himself against the rock and heard Jose’s quick intake of breath.  His hand rested on a thunderbolt, a zigzag line in red and black. A rushing wind filled his ears, carrying the sound of far-away cries, wailing and lamentation. He pulled his palm away and lurched toward the light.

Outside, Felipe sat back against the sandstone. A big black bird circled in the gray sky overhead. Jose squatted beside him. “Why did you show me this?” Felipe asked.

“Spirit of Huyawit, here. His soul.”

Felipe stood. His legs felt shaky. “Those creatures have no soul,” he said. “The pictures in there are monstrous, evil. You understand? I will have the cave mouth sealed.”

 

Working the rancho, riding out each day with his vaqueros, arranging for the transfer of the stiffened hides, Don Felipe forgot about blocking the cave. The condor killing continued. Repellent creatures entered Felipe’s dreams; squat frogs pressed their dank bellies against his face; half man, half animal forms with tails chased him. He lay paralyzed while giant birds tore open his gut and pulled out his intestines. The nightmares drove him from his wife’s bed. He was afraid his fear would infect their unborn child.

He found the curandero in the garden, working on a weir to channel water. “Do you have something to cure my nightmares?” he asked.

The old man wiped his muddy hands on his serape and rose. “We will  ride together again.”

“No more caves,” Felipe said.

Jose shook his head. “A different thing.”

That night Jose burned sage around Felipe’s bed, and he slept more soundly.

In the morning, the two men set out, riding higher into the mountains. Only a few ravens rocked in the updrafts overhead. Felipe remembered how gracefully the great vultures navigated the warm plumes of air, catching the wind to rise and twirl like leaves in a current. He followed Jose across a wide potrero to a grove of stunted oaks, where they tied their horses. Manzanita caught the silver buttons of his trousers, and dust sifted into his cuffs as he trailed the curandero through brush. He grasped Jose’s shoulder, but the old man signaled for quiet, dropping to his knees to crawl forward. Felipe followed, cursing the fact that the old one always managed to get him down on hands and knees. They slithered between boulders to peer over the edge of a cliff.

Far below, four condors stood by a shallow pool fed by a thin waterfall. One of the birds shuffled forward, swinging its big feet side to side, and waded into the pool. It dipped its bare head to sling water on its back, squatted to flap the water with its wings. Some distance away, a pair of birds did a slow kind of dance, bobbing their heads together, touching beaks and entwining necks. The two withdrew and approached again, bumping bodies. Felipe found himself holding his breath as one passed under the raised wing of the other, and the larger bird’s wing fanned forward in a curve, embracing the other. He glanced over at the old man.

“They are together,” Jose whispered in a voice as brittle as a twig. “Until one dies.”

“They are life mates?” Felipe stood and brushed himself off. “But they are only vultures. It’s of no significance.”

 

As the time for Maria Teresa’s confinement approached, Felipe tried to put the troublesome condors and the spirit pictures out of his mind. But they haunted his dreams, and he thought about them as he wandered the hills on foot, never venturing far from the hacienda. It was true, that, like a man, the great birds bathed, they danced and possibly they even loved. But they were loathsome, eaters of the dead. As Felipe passed an oak grove, he thought he heard a baby’s cry and hurried forward. In a clearing, a single condor stood watch over the corpse of another. A high keening came from the living bird. The sound was unearthly, a raw and ancient sorrow weaving into the world from an older place. Felipe backed away.

In the evening he went looking for Jose and found the old curandero sitting on a stool in front of his shack. “What do you call the great vulture?” Felipe asked.

“Huyawit.”  Jose looked up at the night sky. “The wing of the great bird hides the moon tonight.”

 Felipe stared down at the old man. “Why did your people draw his picture?”

“He cleans the earth.” Jose circled the air with his finger. “From death life rises. And from life, death. A wheel that goes forever.”

When the old moon was in the new moon’s arms, Maria Teresa gave birth to the son Don Felipe had been waiting for. From her bed of pale linen, his wife gazed up with troubled eyes. Felipe brought the lamp closer to look down at the tiny face of the babe in her arms. A jagged red birthmark arrowed down the infant’s cheek.

“He is whole in every other way,” Maria Teresa said.

Felipe touched the red arrow with the tip of his finger. “He will be Marcos for the mark on his face. He will be a great caretaker of the land.”

Padre Tomas, bearing blessings and holy water, rode his mule from the mission to welcome the addition of another Christian soul to the heathen land of Alta California. When the time came to christen the infant, Don Felipe was unmovable, standing firm against the old priest’s accusations of pagan influence. And so, inscribed on the mission rolls, son of Don Felipe Calderon de la Vega and Maria Teresa Gonzalez, was the name Marcos Huyawit Calderon de la Vega y Gonzalez.

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