Monday, March 30, 2009


(Miwok Indian grinding holes, Clover Valley, Placer County, California)

Here's another installment of my Great American Lesbian Novel (in progress), Ginny Bates. If you are new to reading GB, go to the section in the right-hand column labeled Ginny Bates to read background and find out how to catch up.

Monday-Wednesday, 9-11 December, 2019

Margie returned Monday afternoon, which meant Myra had a chance to be the one to take Chris to the creek. Chris waited in the car while Myra set up the yoga pad, thermos and folded buffalo robe. Chris leaned on her heavily as they traversed a jumble of rocks to the massive boulder with a built-in back and leg rest next to the icy falls. Myra squatted next to Chris as Chris settled in. The sky was pewter-colored and clear, and it was colder than usual. Pneumonia kept intruding into her thoughts, but she wasn't going to say a word, not with the look of calm joy on Chris's face as she scanned the creek.

“You know, this was a kitchen for a long time” said Chris.

“What do you mean, a kitchen?” Myra looked around her for house foundations.

“A place where people – my people – not only fished and gathered water-life, but also prepared it. That bank across from us is perfect for smoking racks. The falls I'm sure had fish traps but were also good for rinsing all kinds of things. And that boulder beside us, look at it. What do you see?” Chris pointed.

“'s flat, so I guess you could sit on it to work. It's got signs of water covering it at some point in the past, though, with those holes where rock has been eaten away” said Myra.

“Those holes are not from water action” said Chris, grinning. “Look at 'em.”

Myra scooted over and peered into the five holes which went down into the hard rock at least half a foot. The opening of each hole was roundish and also about half a foot in diameter. Leaves and other debris had built up in the bottoms, and she was reluctant to explore them even with a gloved hand. Suddenly she realized what they were.

“My fucking god...they're morteros, aren't they?”

“Yep. At least, they began that way. Women would be grinding nuts, grains, roots in a shallow depression with one of these round river rocks, and after enough time, hundreds of years maybe, the hole would get deep enough to not be useful for that purpose any more. So they'd move on to a new spot. But the existing depression now became a cooking pot. Put in the soup or grain, add more river stones which have been left in the coals of a fire for several hours, and you've got a superb slow cooker” said Chris.

This was the exact spot where Myra had heard those voices from long ago, the time she'd visited while Chris was hiking up the creek. She shivered involuntarily: She'd heard those women making supper.

She looked at Chris, her lips trembling. “Let's cook in them again.”


“Let's clean them out and make breakfast in them tomorrow. Some kind of mush, I've got stone-ground cornmeal which isn't exactly the same but it's damned close. With other wild ingredients.” Myra was beside herself to try.

Chris said “Can you get them clean enough?”

“I'll come back later with scrubbers and something nontoxic. As long as they are just rock all the way down, I can make it work.”

Chris's grin was dazzling. “You're on. I'll think about ingredients. Now buzz off, I need to talk with my ancestors.”

Myra drove the jeep to a point where she could see Margie's red scarf in the tree but the running motor would offer no sound or fumes to disturb Chris. She left the engine going to warm herself, plugged in her laptop and opened the file of her novel. Funny, how it was about a creek girl. It was drawn from her own life, but would change forever now, because Chris was a creek girl, too.

That afternoon, while Chris took a nap, Margie came back with Myra and they cleaned out three of the holes, with final rinse of boiling water. They covered the holes with an upside-down plate topped by a rock. Ginny stayed at the cabin because she was starting to paint the front crossbar of Chris's walker.

They decided to wait on the creekside breakfast until Allie and Edwina could join them. The next morning, Margie took Chris to the creek. While they were gone, Myra wrote and intermittently watched Ginny, who was working at the table with the folded walker in front of her.

“You know, Chris made that joke about her family name, Kash. But the fact is, she's the only Kash left in that line. Ricky and Wayne have their dad's last name, and Tina took her husband's” remarked Myra.

“Did Chris's dad have any brothers to hand it on?” asked Ginny.

“No. Her grandfather did, and there are other Kashes out there, she knows them, but they're distant cousins. I wish there were more.” Myra paused, and added “I wish there were more Bates, too. Cathy's sons and grandchildren are all Lerners.”

“Oh, I'm not worried about the Bates” said Ginny, peering closely at her work.

“Why, because your art will make sure the name is immortal?” said Myra.

Ginny chuckled. “It would be false modesty for me to deny. So yeah, but the main reason is, we have incredible genes and culture, which counts more than the name. I mean, most of what's getting handed on is Cohen, not Bates, to be technical about it.”

Myra thought about that. “You know, a lot of the time Margie uses Bates, not Josong-Bates. Which I secretly like her doing.”

“You are such a sweetie-pie” said Ginny, giving her a tender grin for a moment. “I tell you what I love, the fact that you as a young dyke invented a whole new surname, based on your Mama's name, and now there's seven of you in the world. I get to be part of launching a completely new name.”

Myra could hear the pride in Ginny's voice, and let it swirl around inside her. After a minute, she said “I don't know about the Kash culture, but Chris has sure left her mark on our family. And those genes, Ruby's stamped from the same mold.”

After lunch, Allie and Edwina arrived only a few minutes before Bernie. Margie was introduced, and Bernie took Chris into her room for an exam, blood draw, and urine catch. They returned to the table for Bernie's report on her previous test results: Not good. Slightly more abnormal than the week before.

Chris told her about her plan to focus on First Foods. Bernie offered no objection, which Myra found fascinating. Chris had not mentioned the fact that she was spending two hours a day exposed to the cold, but Myra wondered if Bernie would understand that, too. Myra gave her a dozen muffins to take home, warning her “They're blueberry bran with flax added in, now that Chris is using tramadol regularly. She's been calling them Thunder Muffins, so eat in moderation.” It drew a laugh from Bernie.

Chris went in for her nap and Allie joined her, saying the drive had been tiring. Edwina sat at the table with Myra and watched Ginny's progress as much as Myra did. Margie decided she needed to go into town, and Myra gave her a list of wild food items she might be able to find at the grocery store. When Margie returned, she'd found organic scallions -- “Which isn't wild, but closer than the alternative, right?” -- plus dried service berries, pine nuts, and kosher chickens. Myra roasted the chickens for dinner, saving the schmaltz.

Chris settled in her chair by the stove as dinner filled the house with smells. Margie said “The wood box is nearly empty” and picked it up to fill outside instead of making trips back and forth. Myra had walked to the dining table to set down a bowl of creamed corn, and glanced up at Margie coming back through the sliding doors with the laden box in her arms.

“Margie – There's a mouse on your shoulder!” she called out. Margie screamed at the highest end of her register and dropped the box with a crash, narrowly missing both her feet and those of Chris. She brushed frantically at her shoulders, made contact with the mouse and resumed screaming. It fell from her and she bolted into the kitchen. Allie lifted her feet onto the couch and said “Where did it go?”

Chris had gone into hysterics of laughter. Myra turned on all the lights and began scanning the floor. The bedroom doors were open, so it could have gone anywhere. Edwina and Allie helped her begin searching. After a minute, Myra said “Where's Ginny?” There was no sign of her in either of the bedrooms or the bathroom. Myra slowly raised her eyes to the ceiling, as if she might find Ginny doing a Summer Glau and clinging there somehow.

“Ginny!” she called out, bewildered. They heard a voice from the front window answer “I'm out here.” Myra went to the front door to look at Ginny, standing with her shirt-sleeved arms crossed over her chest. She said “Gin, you're only wearing socks on your feet.”

“Toss me the car keys” said Ginny, her eyes riveted on the door sill, watching for a mouse surge. Myra reached for them, but Margie was ahead of her, pushing out the door and saying to Ginny “I'll join you.”

Edwina came from the bathroom, shaking her head. Allie said “Chris, stand up. Maybe it crawled into your buffalo robe.” Chris had not stopped laughing, and Allie had to help her to her feet. The robe was shook out, with no trace of the mouse.

“Hell” said Myra. “If it's burrowed into furniture or a drawer somewhere -- “

“Maybe it went into the stove” said Edwina.

Myra gaped at her. “If it's in there, it's either Sam McGee or the spawn of Satan.”

“Check the wood box” said Allie. “Could be it went back to the only safe-looking spot in the house.”

Myra carried the box outside and dumped it onto a patch of snow. She yelled and jerked backward as the small animal streaked from the logs, uncrushed, and headed into the night. “Good luck” she called after it. She restacked the wood, shaking each piece before putting it in the box, and carried it back to the house.

“You nailed it” she said to Allie. “It's coyote snack material now.”

Allie opened the stove door and began adding wood. Myra went to the front door and waved at Margie and Ginny, who had the jeep running. Ginny rolled down the window and said “If you don't find it, I'm sleeping out here.”

“We got it” said Myra. “It's in the back yard again.”

“You swear?”

“On my honor” said Myra. She went to get dry socks for Ginny. When she returned to the living room, Margie was saying in a defensive tone “You have to admit, it's one of those sentences you never want to hear – 'There's a mouse on your shoulder.'”

Chris, between giggles, said “Yeah, it ranks right up there with 'I used Poligrip on the dildo.'”

Myra wound up lying on the floor beside Allie, slapping the linoleum in hysterics. Ginny ate dinner with her feet tucked underneath her in the chair. For the rest of the evening, Myra and Allie took turns sending each other into fits of laughter by saying only “Poligrip.”

Myra soaked more shredded pemmican overnight in water. Six round rocks from the creek had been brought home, scrubbed, and left on top of the woodstove overnight. At Chris's direction in the morning, Myra mashed the scallions, pine nuts, camas root, sea salt, and schmaltz in her own mortar and pestle, adding it to the pemmican broth in a covered container. They carried this plus bowls and spoons, thermoses of tea, corn meal, maple syrup, and dried berries in the back of the jeep. Margie loaded the rocks into a dutch oven with tongs and avoided contact between the pot and her clothing.

It had begun snowing, enormous fluffy flakes that had already covered the boulders and the plates. Ground cloth was spread, Chris was settled under her buffalo robe with a poncho over that, and the plates were moved to reveal still-clean holes. Myra divided the corn meal and liquid mixture between the three holes, adding some extra water because it looked too thick. She dropped one of the rocks into the mixture, and steam instantly arose with a cracking sound.

“Holy moly” said Allie. Myra put two rocks into each hole and handed long metal spoons to Allie and Ginny. They each stirred steadily as the mush cooked and came together. Myra could feel the heat emanating from her own hole, and marveled at the conductive power of those round stones.

In fifteen minutes, Myra declared it done. The contents of each hole was spooned into two heaping bowls, the rocks scraped clean and set aside. Chris took the first bite. Her eyes went wide, then fluttered shut. A sound of pleasure came from her.

Myra took a taste. Elemental nutrition she thought. She decided the flavor was too extraordinary to cover with maple syrup. The sound of their spoons scraping glass bowls was slightly muffled by the snowfall. Their cheeks were claret red, the white of the new snow was almost blue, and the boulders around them had gone black from moisture. Please, Ginny, please paint this moment she thought.

She didn't want to leave. Margie and Allie had a brief skirmish over who got to stay on watch, and Margie won. They put the dishes back in the jeep and the four friends walked back to the house together through the sky falling around them.

© 2009 Maggie Jochild.


kat said...

hm...One thing that I haven't solidified in my brain is the sound of Margie's voice. If she screamed at the top of her range, how high was it? Not everyone can do super-high, ear piercing horror movie screams...(like me, for instance)

I remember seeing a big, flat-ish expanse of rock with holes like, maybe? Near Crater Lake? Considering that my only two early childhood vacations were road trips to Oregon and Arizona, I think it must have been Oregon.

kat said...

p.s. didja get my email?

Maggie Jochild said...

Margie's voice is a little deeper than the average woman's, often husky (think Rachel Ray), with a lot of timbre and color to it. Very similar to Ginny's. Myra's is high, though just as colorful. Allie's is deep and soft. Gillam's is like Allie's. Carly's is mischievous.

These early human cooking practices are fascinating to me. They actually ate VERY WELL, far better than us. For the native people of the West Coast, acorn meal (usually eaten as mush) was a staple. But to make the meal nontoxic, it has to be leached a precise number of times. They'd dig creekside holes in a particular texture of sand, boil water on a fire nearby and pour it (with watertight baskets, they didn't have metal pots and if they were nomadic, as many of them were, ceramics were also not practical) over the meal, letting the toxins drain into the sand. Like olives and manioc, to name other examples, this plentiful food was only edible after a complicated process. My question always is, who on earth figured it out? Trial and error was done by human ingestion, not in a laboratory. No wonder insatiable curiousity backed up by perserverance have been evolutionarily advantageous for us.

(And yes, I got Kat's e-mail and just got off the phone with her -- a question that would take too long to write a reply.)