In the lengthening shadows Esteban
runs alone. His guides
have gone ahead to prepare
his welcome at the next town
while the others straggle behind,
still groggy from the midday rest.
And as he runs, his endless
interior dialogues play out
his thin fingers twitching
as if to trace some glyph
or arabesque in the flow of air
past his body.
Since he first learned
to talk with his hands
he can’t keep them still.
A ground squirrel freezes
at the entrance to its burrow
& he finds himself signing a brisk salutation.
Or a hawk on one of the high passes
gliding alongside & hanging
motionless for a moment–
so close he can hear the wind
riffling its feathers–might merit
the honorific gesture meaning
grandfather, grandmother as
the Jumano taught him,
paying homage to all creations
earlier than Man.
But he notes how well it works:
a deer appearing beside the trail
seems mesmerized by his salutation,
only breaks away when the greyhounds
lope into sight with their iron collars glinting,
their lolling tongues.
This must be how
the hunters take them: he’s heard
the greatest ones make no effort
to hide in ambush, wear no disguise,
build no traps, fire no arrows,
up to their quarry
& suffocate it with a handful
(To be continued.)
to talk with his hands: A highly sophisticated sign language was the language of trade and diplomacy for a large swath of Western North America. Cabeza de Vaca’s account makes it clear that they relied on sign language to communicate with numerous tribes on their epic trek, and that Esteban was their chief interpreter.
the Jumano: Buffalo hunters of the southern plains, encountered by Esteban, Cabeza de Vaca and the others in 1535, a couple weeks after their successful escape from slavery on the Texas coast. (For more on the Jumano and the mystery of their virtual disappearance from the historical record, see here.)
prayermeal: Cornmeal used for ritual purposes, usually ground with turquoise and white shell.