Written on my soul is your face And when I write about you it is you that I desire -Garcilaso de la Vega
There are stories that seem impossible to tell. It must be at least ten years since I traveled through California and since then, I’ve been trying to relate, without much success, the story of a great ending: that of Ishi, a Yahi Indian who was found in a state of nature in the remote cowboy town of Oroville, in the month of August 1910.
I had always wanted to take a road trip that started in Cabo San Lucas, the southernmost tip of Baja California, and ended in California’s northernmost city, which was, exactly, Oroville. On this journey, as I had envisioned it, my ex-wife and I would drive north as if we were living a hippie dream and see extraordinary things, stopping in impossibly sinister places and talking to free spirits who would be, frankly, eccentric.
Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way: first of all, our road trip started in the middle-in the Los Angeles airport-and not aboard a black Cadillac with a trunkful of hardcore drugs, but rather in a minivan reminiscent of hell, and in the not-unpleasant-but-just-short-of-terrible company of my wife’s two grandmothers.
While the chronicle of this trip doesn’t quite lend itself to literature, it had its interesting parts, like when we showed the grandmothers, in a Chinese restaurant, how to counter the effects of chili by rubbing salt on the crown of your head, or when one of them read a book of poems by Ferlinghetti that I carried to pass myself off as intense and found that she liked it. In addition, in the University Museum at Berkeley, we saw an exhibit with Ishi’s photos.
The story of the last wild Indian in the United States shouldn’t be a hard one to tell, nor would it seem to present any knots that someone fond of saying one thing and meaning another couldn’t cut through. But there’s something about this tale-or about me-that turns it to mercury: I’ve tried pastiche, straight-forward narrative, the abominable stream-of-consciousness, diary entries, epistolary narrative and still it slips through my fingers like a fist-full of marbles.
The facts are clear and simple: in the small hours of a certain day, a group of workers found, lying at the doors of a slaughterhouse, a man at the brink of death from malnutrition and exhaustion. They carried him inside the building and gave him water. Later, they realized they were dealing with a wild Indian, something which none of them had ever had the opportunity to behold outside the circus, but that their parents and grandparents had taught them to treat as the enemy. They bound his hands and feet-as if he would have been able to escape-and called the sheriff.
The official, perhaps the last cowboy of this bygone era that still reigned in this part of the United States, pulled him up over the rump of his horse just as he was and took him to jail, not because he wanted to mess with him-as he told the press-but because he didn’t really know what to do with him. To his credit, it must be said that he dressed him in his own clothes and fed him with food his wife prepared so that he wouldn’t die of starvation before they could hand him over to the army, which was standard procedure in those days.
By midday, news of the find had already spread like wildfire across the whole region, so that there was practically a stampede to go see the last wild Indian in the United States. Among those who lined up in front of the jail cell was a correspondent for a San Francisco newspaper, who telegraphed a human interest piece in which he described the sheriff’s very odd negotiations with the inflamed passions of the locals -the memories of the Indian wars were still fresh in that area-and the various vaudeville show promoters who wanted to buy the Indian to include him among their attractions.
It was lucky for Ishi, who would have died if the sheriff had been less honest or if the army had been quicker to come after him to march him off to a reservation, that the article in the San Francisco paper was seen by a professor who, upon reading that there was no one who could understand the Indian’s language, sensed that they were dealing with a speaker of Yana, a language that was supposedly extinct and of which a friend of his was compiling a dictionary.
The professor took the first train to Oroville and, armed with his colleague’s notes on the language of the Yahis, went to rescue him. He was in San Francisco already when he realized that he hadn’t considered the problem of where to put the Indian up while he saved him, so he did what his logic, seemingly wilder than Ishi’s or the sheriff’s, dictated: he took him to the Museum of Anthropology.
In the days following these events there was some discussion over what to do with him, but in the end everyone was more or less in agreement that, at the end of the day, the best place for the last aborigine in the United States was a museum. Ishi spent the rest of his life there, much more comfortable and seemingly more satisfied than if he had stayed in the wild. At first, he lived in the guest quarters, then in the administration’s rooms and finally, in the sunniest of the exhibit halls, where they put a bed so he could pass away from tuberculosis three years after his surrender to the white man.
It could be that the story is most significant just as it happened, and that trying to retell it will only make it corny or a morality tale, which is always the worst form of sentimentality. To turn a story that is significant in and of itself into a metaphor is like loving love: however intense it may seem at the beginning, it always ends badly.
Whatever the case may be, the tale of a man who earns a living as a museum piece always fascinated me, more so due to the moving fact that, despite making good and apparently sincere friends among the community of doctors and anthropologists that studied him, the Indian never would tell his real name. Until the last day of his life he asked that they call him Ishi, which in Yana means “Man”: apparently, when one is the last of anything, gender is enough. The problem with Ishi’s story, I am more and more certain, is of literalness: it means what it means and not what I want it to mean.
Three years ago, when I was still living in Washington DC and had just turned 30, I decided to take a Sunday off from the nightmare of my impending move to Boston, where I live now. I wasn’t exactly nostalgic to be leaving the country’s capital, where I had spent some good years–the most recent ones had been, quite frankly, bleak. I was simply bidding adieu to the city in which I had finished maturing and in which my ex-wife and my children would stay with the vague promise that the four of us would live together again when our work commitments allowed and things would really work out then. We went out to our favorite restaurant, a pathetic expedition by virtue of aspiring to be something it was not, and afterwards to a place with a terrace and a French air which made the best coffee in DC.
We were eating cheesecake, each one of us concentrating on playing out his role, when a redhead wearing a t-shirt proclaiming: “Redhead” passed between the tables with the certainty of an angel of death. Upon seeing her, I was sure that such literalness could produce in the world a sort of metaphysical imbalance like the plots of certain Eça de Queiroz novels: every time the redhead puts on that t-shirt that says “redhead,” I told my ex-wife, a Chinese person dies. I think she mostly got the joke, because on my last trip to Mexico, I bought her a witty t-shirt as a gift. In Spanish, it said: “Eres un pendejo” (You are an asshole), and below, in English and in parenthesis: “(You are my friend).”
Naturally, I don’t think a Chinese person dies every time the redhead puts on her t-shirt that says “redhead,” but it does seem to me that so much literalness could end up being harmful, although I am not sure to what.
Or maybe I do: to oneself. The literal, I’ve proven, can bring the worst luck. Not long after having gotten myself into a bad mood over the pendeja (my friend) with the t-shirt in the DC café, I went to do a series of readings in Berlin. I’ve experienced memorable failures in these types of events: even if there is no shortage of obsessive types who in one way or another decide to attend the conferences one gives no matter how unpalatable the topics, to read a story or a piece of a novel in public, is almost always a lesson in why you don’t have to be a writer if what you aspire to is fame.
The Berlin experience consisted of three public appearances. The first was at a round table with one of those open-veined topics that make socially conscious Europeans and gringos feel really good and those of us Latin Americans invited to present more like display items in the museum of compassion. In addition, there were two readings that were more properly literary: one was in a theater that had somewhat of an audience-it was free, it was raining and there was complimentary wine-and the other one was in a café that seemed to have been very stylish back when East Berlin was still a communist plaza. The café was called “Einstein,” followed by the strange qualifier, “under the linden trees.”
The name of the place seemed memorable to me when I read it for the first time in my schedule of appearances in the German capital, but it left the taste of the worst kind of premonitions when, the next morning, I found myself in the vicinity while partaking of the worst kind of tourism around the Brandenburg Gate. It turned out that its strangeness came from it being on a street more or less like Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, precisely because it was under some linden trees.
I was born in a city, Mexico City, in which there is a very dense and lifeless forest called “The Desert of the Lions”, so the imagination of this Teutonic first man, so humorless, gave me chills. My nephew, whose name is Jorge Arrieta, said it with the southern clarity of his eight years in an argument with one of my children when the three of us took such an awful vacation to my parents’ house last August that we had to cut it short: that game, he sneered, is as much fun as making believe your name is Jorge Arrieta.
So, in the end, it was in the Einstein Café Under the Linden Trees that the worst thing that could happen to someone in one of these scenarios happened to me: not a completely empty room, but rather, the attendance of two people, who had bought tickets, so that the moderator, the translator, the actor that was going to read my story in German and I, packed a table at the bow of an auditorium that was the loneliest of all seas, populated as it was by only a young woman and her mother. Not only did we have to read, we did the round table-with simultaneous translation and everything-because the two women had paid and in a city in which a street under the linden trees is called “Under the Linden Trees,” one delivers the fifty minute show that was promised.
Ishi was never lacking an audience: on four of the seven days of the week, he did a presentation in the museum’s receiving hall in which he sang some ritual song, lit a bonfire by rubbing two sticks together and taught visitors how to make bows and arrows from the materials brought to him from Oroville’s gullies. They brought these to his museum because he didn’t want to go back to his native land despite the anthropologists’ insistence. The other days of the week he devoted to mopping and dusting all of the museum’s halls, except for the one which exhibited funeral offerings and mummies, which he never wanted to enter. On Mondays he used to take the cable car early and go see the ocean.
It wasn’t until the last summer of his life that he accepted, against his will and perhaps because he knew he had little time left, to return to the glen: in August of 1913 he went with the museum’s director and his doctor to recreate the wild life he had led until surrendering at the slaughterhouse. The three had a stupendous time living naked out in the open and eating what they hunted in the woods.
Originally, they were to stay the whole month, but Ishi insisted on returning to San Francisco, noting, every time they tried to convince him to the contrary, that he preferred the comfort of the museum to that of the return to nature. Apparently, it didn’t occur to anyone that the return to the forest could be depressing for the Indian, who hadn’t exactly lived in a rose garden during what the doctors believed to be his first thirty years of life.
The Yahi tribe was the last to be subdued in the United States: there was no formal surrender process as in the case of the Apaches or the Lakotas because they were exterminated with singular cruelty: if the Federal Army discovered them before the bands of trackers coming out of Oroville did, they took them to a reservation, which didn’t seem like enough of a punishment to anyone among the white men.
Ishi survived because he had the unprecedented luck of not being there during his tribe’s two fatal encounters with the enemy. During the first one, the Indian hunters, who, when not scouring the hills, were people with families who were more or less civilized, one afternoon found the last Yahi settlement remaining in the glens-the tribe had already been decimated by a period of war and persecution-and waited patiently until the next morning so they could shoot at them from the hills. Ishi had gone to the forest with his grandmother, who apparently was the tribe’s shaman, and they had spent the night there so that the night watchman could bless the roots they had collected. When they returned, they found the settlement razed. They took a long time to find the tribe, which had barely any men left: the women and children had run towards the caves in which the warriors sacrificed themselves to the cowboy’s fires. From their refuge in the mountains, the remaining Yahi hunted and gathered by night.
One day a party of white men, conscious that a part of the enemy had escaped them, found a trace of deer blood under the trees, which most probably were lindens. They followed it and found the refuge without any difficulty. According to a chronicle-brilliantly written-by one of the members of that party, the situation was perfect because having occupied the mouth of the cave and it being closed at the back, none of the Indians could escape. In one of the most hair-raising paragraphs of the tale, the Californian gentleman tells about how, in a given moment of the massacre, he decided to use his revolver because, while it has to be reloaded more often, it does a cleaner job: as he learned very quickly, babies explode when shot at with a rifle.
This part of Ishi’s history, which he never knew very well, or at least not in the detail that I know it, I found out later, in a book of chronicles of the period that I found in the library of the university where I teach. He simply returned from the creek bed with his mother and his sister and found that they had to, once again, bury the dead. Although he never spoke directly of that day, more than once he alluded to the terrible task of burying all his people.
By the time I read that chronicle, I had already tried, without any success, to write a story about him five or six times and it always turned out too political: literal to the death with all its meaning exposed, or maybe not all, but at least the part I was interested in: what intrigued me about Ishi was not his tragic condition and the clarity with which it shows that the New World is the successful utopia of a group of criminals, but rather, the unprecedented solitude of one who knows he’s reached the end of something with no way out.
The version I wrote in those days was the worst of them all because back then I was weighed down with shame and full of the moral prurience that causes us to reject certain forms of hypocrisy in favor of others. That version of the story was called “Taking Democracy to California,” and with that I don’t need to add that it was the worst one.
There is a story, one that is quite good, told by Bernardo Atxaga. He says that one day, while walking through a village in his native region of the Basque Country, he suddenly found himself by a door with a hole in it and an old man. They talked a little and finally the old man asked him if he wanted to know why there was a hole in the door. It must be for the cat, Atxaga says he responded. No, said the man, they made it years ago, to feed the boy who became a dog after a dog bit him.
The stories I like, the ones that drive me crazy with desire and envy to write that way, have the same blinding logic as the old Basque: there’s a piece missing and that absence transforms them into mythology, calling upon a common denominator that makes us all more or less the same.
If a boy is bitten by a dog and gets rabies, the illusion of universal cause and effect is maintained; there is order and thus, categories. If, instead, he turns into a dog, the world is uncontrollable like our affections, our inability to live according to our own standards, our unwarranted misfortunes, which are almost all of them. Atxaga’s brilliant old man would have never worn a t-shirt that said “Old Man”; what he said is good for the same reason that, to create literature or film, failed love stories are better: there’s every reason for a to lead to b and from there to the offspring, but something gets screwed up without anyone really knowing what happened and a leads to the abyss of the w and the s curve of suicide.
Ishi, despite having lived almost his whole life in the sharpest of solitudes, always resisted the urge to kill himself: the silence of museums is even worse than that of the department of an old and unpromising professor, so a solitude such as his, that doesn’t even have the chic air of being self-inflicted, does something to me that seems like what the boy who turned into a dog does. It fills me with hope that one day the futures that slipped through my fingers like marbles will feel mythological.
His third and last misencounter with white men before his surrender in Oroville’s slaughterhouse was the definitive one. It occurred several months before the submission and reflects what would be his ultimate destiny: the tent in which he lived with his mother and sister was discovered by a group of geology professors accompanying a mining expedition. While the scientists and the Indians never saw each other face to face, the mess the first group left behind in the second group’s settlement was enough for them to decide to escape and save whatever was left of their skins. They disbanded. Ishi never again saw his sister or his mother, who must have met a terrible death in their flight, but who certainly left this world with the epic aplomb of those who suffer without surrendering.
Ishi gave himself up in order to get a little bit of food, perhaps thinking that if he was going to die anyway, it was better to do so with a full stomach. Having taken that decision leaves him little fighting spirit and brings those of us who have tried to tell his story closer to the abyss of literalness. The survivor of an entire world that also lives in a museum is pure signified: no parts are lacking and without mystery there is no mythology.
It’s because of this that I think it’s better to imagine him in the days in which, instead of being a wooden Indian, he was just the densest of the janitorial staff of an institute. You have to imagine him resigned to being the last of something and serenely mopping the halls.
When, a few months after Ishi arrived in San Francisco, the problem arose that he couldn’t live in the guest rooms forever, they decided to name him maintenance worker and pay him a salary so he could live in the personnel rooms. To everyone’s surprise, he didn’t understand that it was a solution to the problem of there being nowhere to keep him since he was the last one of something and the next day, he donned worker’s overalls and asked for a bucket.
He barely used money, more to buy modest things to eat: honey, cornmeal, pumpkins, apples, coffee; he was a tiny man and notoriously frugal. He also spent his money on taking the cable car, which he rode to see the ocean from Golden Gate park. That was how he spent all his days off: the sea was the place at which we forgive ourselves for the marbles that have slipped through our fingers without our understanding why. He stockpiled the rest of his salary in the museum’s safe: saving it in vials his doctor gave him that had the exact circumference and height to safeguard ten silver dollars. At the end of his life, he loved to contemplate them: he asked the director to open the safe, he put his packets of dollars on a table, and he spent all afternoon looking at them, without saying anything or taking the coins out, as if they were something else.
If one is the last of something, what he has held onto doesn’t make a saving, but rather the sum of an entire universe: it’s there that in the untellable tale of Ishi the bitten boy becomes a dog, the forest is called a “desert” and the redhead wears a t-shirt that doesn’t say “pendeja.”
Sometimes writing is a job: to obliquely trace the path of certain ideas that seem essential to put on the table. But other times, it’s to grant what’s left, to accept the museum and contemplate the sum while waiting for death, to ask the sea for forgiveness for everything that got screwed up. To put our little boxes on the table and know that what ended was also an entire universe.