A little something of MINE: El Despojo de Maria Zacarias Bernal Berreyesa (Chapter 2)
This is an excerpt from the book I'm writing about the extraordinary life of a local Spanish-Mexican matriarch, a first generation colonist of San Jose. I wanted to share bits and pieces as I go, with the caveat that, like all works in process (and life), it's subject to change.
At eight o’clock in the morning, I am the only person on the trail beside Los Alamitos Creek. It is sunny and clear, with enough of a breeze to make faint songs of leaves. New light shimmers on night-moistened chaparral. The oaks are dark and lush. Sycamore branches, heavy with glossy green foliage, drape to the ground and rest there in jagged swoops, like the handkerchief hem of a gown. Their hole-punched bark and three-toed leaves lie all across the trail. Poison oak vines, pink with sun, encircle trunks.
There are patches of darkness on Los Alamitos, places the sun gives only a passing glance. In summer fish linger within these mossy pools, watching for fallen mosquitos and hiding from herons. Today I, too, am drawn to shadowed places, to the bank where my boy once played in the shade of an oak.
I have named this oak the Wailing Windblown Woman because, like the famous picture that can be seen as either a beauty or a hag, its shape can take two forms. Its tall trunk curves like an arcing spine, and its limbs grow laterally in one direction. I can see her as a woman facing a strong wind, her arms outstretched behind her, her hair and skirt blown back, reveling in nature’s power. Or I can see her as turned the other direction, a woman bent over in grief, her hair hanging down in her face, her arms reaching forward in supplication. Today I see her as Windblown Woman, because I am looking for strength, and the birds are singing in sweet staccato trills.
In late August of 1842, on a warm day like this, Zacarias might have been doing her wash at this creek, or at least supervising the Indian servants who did – servants whose “payment” was typically room, board, and clothes. But for time I would see them all now, carrying stacks of soiled linens from the rickety carreta down to the shallow creek. A pair of yoked oxen would be snuffling and stamping at flies. The shouts of vaqueros and thudding of hooves would be drifting from the plain. There would be a picnic spread over the banks, sure to include tortillas, tomatoes, olives, figs, and beef. The air would be fragrant with food and homemade soap, along with the constant scent of hot weeds and manure.
The girls and women would be standing in the creek, scrubbing the linens against the stones. Snowy white linens were the pride of every Spanish-Mexican family, and the doñas and daughters wore white except in mourning; families being large, this was all too often the case. Zacarias might be sitting on this very boulder, keeping one eye on eleven-year-old Domingo and nine-year-old Magdalena, and one eye out for intruders. Her grown daughters Loreta and Carmen, whose double wedding three years earlier had already produced three girls, might have been there with both surviving babies in arms, as might have Santiago’s pregnant wife, with their one living child, and numerous nieces and nephews and cousins as well.
Today Zacarias’s older sons would be helping their father on the ranch. Reyes might not be quite himself; he had received Governor Alvarado’s confirmation of his land grant on the 20th – the prefect of Monterey had vouched for his character, recommending confirmation on the basis of “the honesty, numerous family, and good services of Señor Berryessa”– but only for one league, not two. For eight years he had been unable to claim the title to the two leagues granted him by Governor Figeuroa, who had since died; a neighbor, Justo Larios, was still contesting the boundaries. It was a frustrating situation, and one of more critical import than Reyes knew.
* * *
I return to the stream in the afternoon, when the sun is sliding behind the sycamores, and the gnats are rising up in languid drifts. Zacarias would be heading homeward now, the creaky carreta loaded with stacks of folded white linens, laundry supplies, and leftover picnic fare. I imagine Domingo, perhaps the only son still home all day, walking beside his middle-aged mother, holding her elbow as she steps around thistles and stones. He is the tenth boy of ten, born in 1830, six weeks before Ignacio’s wedding day. Zacarias had held her last son in her arms while her first son danced in his bride’s.
An unexpected breeze disturbs the Windblown Woman. Pollen drifts down around me in clouds, sifting back and forth until it lands in the shaded creek. The water flinches. Maybe the woman is wailing after all.