In prehistoric California, among rolling foothills of the Sierras, young Jupa discovers his father dead by an old oak tree. An elder, Keleli, concludes it was murder. How will the murderer be caught? How does loss change Jupa, coming into his own as a man? The Thieves of Shiny Things weaves murder, coming-of-age, and social bonds into a Stone Age mystery that evokes the Native America that once was.
JUPA RUBBED HIS LEFT TEMPLE. These ravens?
He glanced down to where he might climb off the path. Then his gaze ascended a dirt bank thick with the sere yellow of wild rye fallen upon itself. Above, a bone-gray sky drifted closer in late afternoon and already shrouded verdant conifers higher up the mountain. The ravens flapped dusky circles about an oak tree, raucously. Alone atop the bank, the black oak stood in silhouette.
He stared at its tracery of leafless branches, his left thumb and fingers toying with the bristly strap of his mule-deer buckskin, a garment worn to bare leather in more than a few spots.
But these ravens, what were they krahnking about?
He hooded his eyes, his left palm tight to the spill of dark hair at his eyebrows. Did they know of something hidden by the wild rye? He was on his way back to the caves of his people, the Miwokituls, and an evening meal of the sweet acorn porridge everyone would soon enjoy. After dark, in this eleventh moon, was when they ate around a fire on the commons. But that meal could wait.
The looping ravens--wings whumping overhead--teased with possibility. He heard that ravens often gathered in an oak--flapping up, off, and then back on the branches--making a commotion for what purpose only they truly knew. Dozens of them. An insistent cacophony of krahnking. The shaman Nyma said they were young ravens socializing, getting to know each other before pairing off as mates.
Jupa squinted. The black gliders climbed and turned against the pearl sky. One flared, dropping to the ground, out of sight. One dark sentinel krahnked away in the tree. His throat tightened. These ravens--five of them--might be working a kill.
Maybe all the fierce whumps of strong wings, the head-thrusting krahnks were to protect a carcass from yet another unseen carnivore. Jupa's hand slipped off his forehead. He had to see for himself.
He leaned forward and pushed on his thighs. His stomach protested hunger, again. But the meal back at the caves could wait. Off the well-trod, chalky dirt path, his feet plunged, trampling lank rye grass the wind had crippled, though it still rose knee-high. Any other time, the lowly cockle-burs would have stung his shins, but not then, so eagerly up the grass-clad bank he bounded.
Now a young man, Jupa knew the others in his hamlet saw him as a hunter in the making. He had learned much from his elders among the Miwokituls, the people who lived in mountain caves. When ravens circled low like this, he was taught, they deserved special notice. Their slow feathery glides usually meant a fresh kill. His eyes strained at the skeletal crown of the leafless black oak atop the hummock. At its foot, just out of sight, he was summoned by what his head held as a picture of a fallen mule deer, half-eaten. Jupa shot a glance higher up the mountain. The tawny, rangy cougar who lived there probably killed its hapless prey in a rage of tooth and claw.
The big cat would rip and devour flesh ravenously until, abruptly, it stopped, unable to stomach another mouthful. Then, often dragging the lifeless carcass to a tree, the cougar would leave it for a later meal. The ravens, though, seemingly had ideas of their own about sharing the cougar's cache. This, of course, was all Miwokitul hunting lore Jupa had in his head as he thrashed through the last of the wild rye, ready to mount the bank.
Suddenly, the ravens took off. Krahnking. Krahnking. Krahnking. A burst of whumps, then the dark, sinister gliders flying flat to the next black oak. A flaring of wings. A spreading of talons. A grappling to the skeletal branches. Jupa stumbled, picked himself up, sure the smell of death the black scavengers loudly enjoyed was about to engulf his nostrils.
But when the withered stalks finally gave way, Jupa froze stock-still among a scattering of moldering leaves. The fallen form under the lone black oak was no mule deer. In the waning pearl light, he saw the otherness was not otherness. He choked. He could not, would not, utter the cry climbing inside. On the ground, the foot of the fallen figure wore a milkweed-stitched deerhide moccasin, a momko. His hunger, now nausea. His legs, heavy as stone, now would not move. Seeing more would add nothing. Seeing more would take nothing away.
The momko. His eyes would not leave that momko.
That one momko. Then slowly his rapt stare softened. Yes, the momko attached to a leg unnaturally bent. Jupa panted, breath on breath.
Finally, the legs freed. A few hesitant steps forward.
Again, the throat seized, held back something. The eyes glanced about for more.
He knelt beside the body. The thick, dark hair. The full beard. The steely eyes. The forehead scarred at the brow. The mouth, the missing teeth at the tight upper lip. The rabbit-skin blanket covering the body, a most prized possession. Jupa's mouth sagged and the salt of tears found his tongue.
"Pa," he said softly.
Then for the longest while, his head, still as his father's, held the emptiness.
His father's head listed sideways. Jupa's ribs flexed and rose gently. Tears rolled off his cheeks. The two open, steely eyes had clouded over and now fixed on nothing. He palmed his tears.
He took a deep breath and bent lower. He let his eyes, fingers carefully scrutinize the body. For all the rowdy cacophony the ravens had been making, the body was surprisingly intact. He dragged his index finger across the softness of the cold clavicle and bit his lower lip. Ravens were scavengers. Yet their hard, black beaks had not torn open the flesh. A spent body: eyes unblinking, nose and mouth waiting on the next inhalation.
Jupa rubbed his temple. When a cougar kills, its claws, its fangs rip flesh as quickly as the unfelt sharpness of an obsidian knife. Blood all over the ground. He wasn't killed by a cougar.
Jupa slid fingers through the coarse hair. Some grit in the shaggy strands--chalky soil. Nothing else. No blood. No bruising, no swelling, no skull break the back of the head. His father didn't fall, hit his head on a rock. Why is he dead?
He stood to his feet, legs tensed for the run back to the caves, his ma, Sawaja, and the other Miwokituls. But not before a picture in his head arrested him: "I'll see you soon," his pa had told him when he left, determined to bring back a basket of jumutu potatoes.
He glanced wildly about the prone body, the chalky ground, the skeletal black oak.
Tossed to the side, closer to the tree, the basket of twined rushes his ma had wove, flopped open, empty. He plunged forward, saw in the beaten-down grass, half-hidden, the digging stick, a length of mountain mahogany, scraped barkless and sharpened to a point. Again, he wiped away tears. He didn't even have time to dig for jumutu. He put the digging stick with the woven-rush basket to take them both away.
He could not carry the body by himself. Heavy, bigger than he, he needed help. The ravens--now silent--would smell death, even at night. They would be back. He had to get his pa to the hamlet for a proper burial. He had no time to waste.
In the eastern sky, a waxing half-moon floated free of the mountain ridge and shone weak, cold light on the indifferent body. Jupa had returned to the black oak with three Miwokitul men from the hamlet: Keleli the Elder and the two hunters who were out with Naketi recently: wiry Mojku and stout Lewi. Jupa leaned forward, hands on thighs, breathing hard. Nearby, Keleli the Elder set down his walking stick next to the corpse and muttered a word or two.
Keleli had been, without a doubt, the best Miwokitul hunter alive. He would easily read sign after sign and in his prime always knew the best places to hunt animals.
But Keleli no longer hunted. He didn't chase game animals. Age had slowed him, made his walking stiff and labored. And so he was often seen with the walking stick he set down. Tall with wispy, white hair, he unhurriedly moved his hands across the body, appearing to search for signs of why Naketi lay dead. His fingers followed the contours of the stubborn form, as if he knew death well from the times beyond count he had been hunting. "Your poor father, he comes to a sorry end, but not by beast. He's unmarked, see?"
"Yes. No blood," Jupa said.
The elder said nothing to Jupa's words and went back to examining the rigid body in shallow moonlight. The young Miwokitul tucked his hands against a hollow, hungry stomach--he still had to eat. He glanced sheepishly at the others: Mojku and Lewi, both keen-eyed and ready, chests heaving lightly under their buckskins. They had to, as Jupa, wait for what Keleli the Elder decided was next.
His face listing right, Naketi lay with mouth gaping surrender. Buzzy black flies alit and scurried over the flaccid lips. Jupa wanted to hurry up. He scowled and his eyebrows tightened with impatience. Pa shouldn't rot here. Why can't we take him back, Keleli see him there?
Keleli slowly zigzagged the spread fingers of his right hand over Naketi's lips, as if searching for traces Death might have left. Then quickly, he swot the air above the lips, shooing the buzzy flies. "How did your father die? Not by beast, we know that. But did his body give up? Were his lungs tired? His heart weak? Is that why he fell?"
Why do we stay and he ask such questions? Again, the picture in his head came back: Only that morning, the day like so many others, his pa set out, in good spirits. "I won't be long, I have a new place to look for jumutu," he said. Jupa winced that it could have been true.
"See these lips," Keleli said. "In the mouth too. I don't see blood. I don't see vomit. Nothing. You hear what I'm saying?"
"No, what?" Jupa replied.
"Your father didn't die because his body gave up. Of this, I'm sure. I've seen death many times and always in the last, great battle, the body tries to fight it off." His right palm swotted the air above the corpse. "The body doesn't want to die. Why would it? You see, the body then fights back and throws off what it can, trying to escape. I always, with dying animals, see this. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. But no animal, no man dies peacefully, his mouth open this way." Keleli paused. "When the heart gives out, if nothing else, he must dribble spit."
Jupa averted the elder's searching eyes and glanced away toward the moon, more unsure than ever why his pa had met Death like this.
The pale moon. The skeletal oak. The sprawled corpse.
Keleli was palming Naketi's forehead. "The warmth of blood left his body before midday. But he is not yet cold. He's not been dead a day. That we already knew. He died today." Jupa felt lightheaded with hunger and less sure about these odd ways of finding truth. Keleli rambled on--one observation after another--none closer to why his pa died.
Suddenly, Keleli's words quit. His hand shot from the face and its fixed, steely eyes to a flap of the rabbit-skin blanket and then reached beneath. "What's this?" Keleli asked. His finger prodded the back of Naketi's rib cage. "Oh, what's this?" He held up his hand. The fingers wet with blood. Jupa's throat seized at the raised hand, the carmine sheen.
Fresh blood, not sticky, but flowing, streaked the fingers Keleli held high.
Tears welled in Jupa's eyes.
His pulse raced and he wiped a wet cheek with the back of his hand. Why this blood? Bleeding out his back--
Keleli pulled close his cane and got to his feet. "Here, help me." He summoned Mojku and Lewi with the blood-tipped hand. "Let's turn him over."
Jupa wanted to help too, but Keleli's red fingers made his legs go weak.
Mojku and Lewi took arms and legs and carefully turned Naketi over.
A large circle of blood stained the back of the rabbit-skin blanket and to the side, a pool of blood, uncovered, reflected moonlight.
"The blood from his heart soaks the ground," Keleli said softly, as if he, too, were shaken by the full horror of how Naketi's life ended.
A tired, hungry Jupa could only stare as Keleli lifted the blanket away and exposed the back and its wet coat of blood. "See here, this hole," Keleli said, pointing to a purplish puncture in Naketi's upper back. "The small arrow must have gone deeply here, pierced his heart. His heart kept beating, kept pushing out blood." With delicacy, Keleli traced his fingers around the wound. The reason Naketi died was obvious.
He was murdered.
"But the arrow, where's the arrow?" Jupa asked, his eyes unable to look elsewhere, his gaze on the pool of blood so fixed.
"Must've been pulled out," wiry Mojku said in a thin, reedy voice.
"Yes, with such arrows the Hutasil shoot small animals." Keleli replied. "They taper the flint both ends. It pulls out easily."
"Why would they do this?" Jupa asked, still staring at the blood pool. "Why shoot the arrow, then pull it out?"
"Simple." Keleli smiled as if welcoming the question's challenge. "If I had the wood of the arrow, the stone of the flint in my hand, I could name the killer of your father. This way, he covers his tracks."
"The four of us, we'll search and, believe me, he'll turn up," stout Lewi said, patting Jupa on the shoulder.
"This is all we'll find tonight," Keleli said. "The arrow, maybe, is in the grass. We'll come back tomorrow with the sun out and I can see more. But first we must bury your poor father."
"Mojku, you ready to carry?" Lewi said. "We're strong, it won't be hard."
Keleli scanned the trampled grass once more for anything obvious he missed.
"Let's set him right, take him home," Keleli said.
For his part, stout Lewi easily took Naketi's head, shoulders and arms on his back after they stood up the corpse. Wiry Mojku took a leg in each arm and they were ready to leave. Jupa wanted to help, but also felt nauseous and weak with hunger. His legs moved with effort and he walked behind Mojku and Lewi; Keleli, willow cane in hand, leading the way down the path.
Naketi's head sagged sideways off Lewi's broad back, his head lowered, his steely, frozen eyes seemingly glanced backward at his son. Tears welled in Jupa's eyes. His pa was saying good-bye. He really was leaving.
The four Miwokituls plodded down the path, one of their own held on high. Despite listless legs and arms, Jupa had to keep up with the others. He openly wept, but his pa was now going home. In the sky above the mountain ridge, a buoyant waxing half-moon rose.
In the east and past the grass-thick hills dotted with black oaks, a broad, hard-limestone outcropping jutted from the mountain called Hilica Peak for its reputed cougars. There, numerous small shelter caverns gave subterranean refuge to generations of Miwokituls. The caves were all dry, and any limestone deposit formations were long detached and crumbled underfoot, beneath woven-tule mats.
For thirty-odd men, women, and children, the hamlet had no shortage of protected cavern spaces to sleep on a deerhide bed, cushioned by mounds of dried bracken fern. The interiors were always cool and dark, so the Miwokituls saw caves as only a place to sleep and take shelter from storms.
Any other time, the Miwokituls wanted to be outside. The men would range across the rolling foothills and oak-studded savannas hunting mule deer and smaller animals, gathering downed oak limbs for firewood, digging up root plants for food, and spearfishing in the nearby Locoma River; and left the women to work their cobblestone pestles in the limestone mortars, meditatively pounding acorns into flour.
This acorn preparation--the seemingly endless pounding and soaking day after day--was something Jupa's ma, Sawaja, and the women did from a pure sense of duty, for every Miwokitul knew, men included, the oak acorn was far more dependable for food than the mule deer the men were hunting with less and less success.
At the end of the day, the porridge was cooked and everyone shared the daily meal and told stories around the snapping, effulgent fire on the commons. Only when eyelids began drooping, did anyone retire to the caves and sleep.
It was to such a meal, everyone eating on the commons, the foursome--and the body of Naketi--came home, and commotion quickly broke up the usual nighttime routine. Sure, everyone knew when Jupa came back at early evening, Naketi was dead.
But seeing the blood-soaked, rabbit-skin blanket clinging to the lifeless body convinced in a different way. The Miwokitul headman Wota--and everyone else--quickly came up. They crowded Jupa out of the way, clamoring for a closer look at the corpse.
With furrowed brow, Wota stood by Keleli. The headman's long black hair showed he had not become leader by age among the hunter men--that distinction belonged to Keleli--but instead had the position handed to him from his late father Pisu. Not surprisingly, from time to time, grumblings were voiced about the elder Keleli--not headman Wota--having the wiser words. So perhaps without much apology, Wota often asked Keleli what to do.
Ignoring the onlookers, wiry Mojku and stout Lewi didn't stop and took the body straight to the grand cave, where a small interior fire burned, illuminating the rust-hued limestone walls.
Keleli glanced briefly at the pair and the corpse they carried past. "What happened, I want to tell you. Listen. The husband of Sawaja, the father of Jupa was murdered."
A gasp stilled the crowd murmurs. "I say murder," the elder said. "The body has only one small wound in the back. That pierced his heart. He bled to death where he fell."
Keleli's eyes darted about, his white hair unruly from exertion. "So we bury our dear brother, but we'll also find the murderer," he shouted. "And the murderer's people will pay."
Yeaaaa--------- The crowd hurrah brought out a smile in Keleli's somber face.
"He was a good man. We should kill two of them," Wota shouted.
"No, this isn't what we seek." Keleli scanned the crowd, half were still eating, yet clearly some were also hungry for a serving of revenge.
"We'll find who murdered this good hunter and left Jupa here fatherless and Sawaja alone. Once we know--" He paused, looking the headman standing next to him in the eye. "Wota will go to the headman where the murderer lives. They can do with the murderer as they wish, but for us, the Miwokituls, we must get something to make up for this loss." The headman Wota nodded. As Keleli shouted these words, as Keleli insisted on getting some blood money for the loss of Naketi, the crowd quieted.
"How much?" Wota asked.
"Possibly the mule deer he would have killed in one season, possibly two seasons. We don't know yet," Keleli replied. "For now, we must bury this brother to us all."
Jupa turned away to contemplate the torch-lit portal of the grand cave and Naketi's body resting on several logs pushed together. He also had to get a helping of porridge.
The next day, the late afternoon sun teetering and tipping in the west, four men, Mojku and Lewi included, hoisted Naketi's body and carried him for the last time. They were to be followed by every Miwokitul--children, too--to a lower meadow covered with bracken fern.
Earlier, Ujuju and Ywyja had dug a grave with antler picks, wooden mattocks, and bare hands. They knew where to dig. Bracken fern wouldn't grow on the other graves.
So at the Miwokitul graveyard, the earth had been opened and fresh, soft dirt was banked high beside a shadow-filled pit that waited.
The Miwokituls soon congregated. Naketi's body, arms crossing his chest, lay composed on the dirt bank one side of the trench. The other side, the headman Wota, long dark hair to his shoulders, stood slightly apart from everyone else and stared at the open grave. At his right, the elder Keleli with white, wispy hair stood with Jupa and lowered his head out of sorrowful respect. At Jupa's side stood his ma, dressed in her usual fringed buckskin skirt and rabbitskin poncho, and her face reddened with tears.
Wota cleared his throat, began speaking. "Today, we bury one of our own. I'd like Keleli to say a few words." Nervously, he looked to the elder.
Keleli started speaking. "I have known our departed friend all his life. I wish I had known him longer." His wispy beard whipped about in the breeze. He leaned on his walking stick. "I know all of us wish that."
Jupa put his hand to Sawaja's shoulder. She wept gently, but her face showed quiet strength. Most of his fellow Miwokituls also remained quiet and stoic--Naketi's numb, mute body there but one more time.
As Jupa and the others knew, what they saw before them--an early death--would probably be their lot. Few would live as long as Keleli. Most would die from fevers and sicknesses that would not go away. But if Miwokituls often died early, it was seldom murder like this, for Jupa's people tried to live in peace with their neighbors.
Jupa shut his eyes. Keleli spoke about what Naketi had done for the hamlet. When his eyes reopened, the young girl Akra was fidgeting to his right. Even little Akra, wearing a one-deer pelt garment, might not live long.
"Certainly, we will miss this brother to us all," Keleli said. Krahnk, krahnk, krahnk. The elder's wispy beard whipped about, as he ignored, in the north sky, at his back, several noisy ravens landing, strutting about, each seemingly eyeing the funeral from afar.
Were the ravens waiting until everyone left? A shiver ran up Jupa's spine. Were they the same black scavengers from yesterday circling the oak tree? They had to be.
Jupa wanted to chase them, throw stones at them, but Death had arrived to stay.
He frowned at the blanched body dropped on the fresh, crumbly dirt, that look of a face irrevocably stilled. Even with everyone by his side, Jupa had been abandoned. He was lost. His throat tight against a cry climbing to get out, a hurt he couldn't let go, not with everyone there.
Keleli finished speaking and stepped back. Nyma, the young shaman, came forward. Tall and lean with long, stringy, black hair falling out from under his high leather hat--among the Miwokituls only the shaman wore such a hat--his slight body seemingly lacked enough flesh to fill out his buckskin. His eyes swept over the assembly and he cleared his throat.
"This man has left us. His body here on earth will now rest in the soil because his spirit has taken flight to the other world."
Lifting his head, Jupa took a glimpse into the scudded sky.