Sissa's Gone

Dear Uncle,

I am writing to ask if you can come to our place for a visit. I know you are old, feeble and can hardly get around, but it would be nice to see you just the same. Besides, mother says it would be good for you to travel. She said you have become an old recluse, and you live too much in the past. She also said you use to visit many places, but now you stay on your farm.

She told me not to tell you she is feeling badly, and she could use some of your medicine. She had a fever for a couple of days and she is still confined to the house. Work at the restaurant has been steady, but she is not needed there. She just can’t seem to get her strength back. Perhaps you can help. I have to go to San Francisco on business the second week in August, and I could meet you there, if you can come.

Well, I can’t think of anything else to write so will close for now. Oh, by the way, do you know how to read? ha, ha.




Yurok Na put down the letter, took off his reading glasses and gazed quietly toward the west to see if there were any storms rolling in off the ocean. The skies were peppered with red clouds and the sun was low in the sky. A golden light shone all around Yurok Na’s house, and the shadows grew long and slender over the grassy field before him. He decided he would go to visit his sister and nephew, and he pondered his sister’s illness. He didn’t sense any urgency or there would have been a telephone call. Even though neither he nor his sister liked to use the phone very much, an emergency would warrant a call. Anyway, he was really interested in finding out what Ben Franklin Horse was up to since he had written the letter.

The days passed quickly during the two weeks after Ben’s letter arrived, and Yurok Na had prepared to leave for his visit. He always traveled light. He had an old leather bag that his wife had made from elk hide, and he packed it with very few items: some medicine herbs for his sister, a shirt, a pair of socks, a comb, and a lunch sack. He had fresh baked tortillas, some honey, and a few pieces of fruit. He preferred to take his own food rather than eat at restaurants or fast food vendors. He dressed in clean blue jeans, a T-shirt, a black denim work shirt, and a blue denim jacket. He put on a pair of black engineer boots that Ben had brought him on his last visit to the farm. Before leaving, he made one last glance around his house and nodded to himself that things were fine. He closed the door and walked toward the road leading to the bus stop, where he would catch the morning express to San Francisco.

The bus stop was little more than a turn-around beside the road that ran along the coastline. There was a small diner next to a convenience store that advertised “COLD BEER-GAS-FOOD-BAIT,” and a post office selling commemorative Elvis stamps, where Yurok Na purchased his bus ticket. He sat down on a bench outside the post office and awaited the bus. Although Yurok Na knew the folks that owned the convenience store and diner, and was neighbors with the woman who sold him his ticket, he did not engage in any conversation with anyone. He was friendly, but their gossip centered on the weather, money or what was going to happen to them when the road was expanded by the state. Looking up from where he sat, Yurok Na couldn’t miss the huge bulldozer parked at the edge of the road. He figured it was parked there to give the people who lived and worked here an opportunity to acquaint themselves with the instrument of change coming into their world. Besides, it was more than adequate fuel for the gossip around the bus stop. However, Yurok Na amused himself with the prospect of starting up the old beast and driving it into the ocean. But after considering his age, he decided he would only injure himself and upset the marine life if he did. For now he would just sit and shake his head at the machine.

The bus from Portland to San Francisco finally arrived and Yurok Na was the last to climb aboard. He walked toward the back where there were a few empty seats and picked one next to a window. He sat down, made himself as comfortable as he could, and stared out the window at the place where he had just stood. As the bus rolled onto the road, Yurok Na heard the big diesel engine roar and he watched the store disappear in a cloud of dust from the wheels churning up the roadside dirt. He told himself to sit back and try to enjoy the ride, even though he didn’t really like bus rides. Somehow the simple sound of the words echoing in his “sit back and try to enjoy the ride,” reminded him of the last time he heard them spoke aloud. It was the last time that he had ridden the bus to San Francisco with his wife, just before she had taken ill and died. She had told him the very same thing then as he was telling himself now. Except this time, he was alone and the gentle comfort of his wife’s reassuring voice was silent.

The bus carried only a few passengers on this trip, mostly older people like himself, except for a couple of young girls dressed in coveralls over tank-tops, and festooned with jewelry piercing nearly every tender place on their face and ears. Yurok Na marveled at the sight of these two people he figured to be around 16 or 17 years of age, and yet they were already tattooed like some of the roadmen he’d seen working on the highway near his home. One of the girls turned around and asked Yurok Na the time of day. Yurok Na winced as he saw the silver bead stud pierced through her tongue and could only say, “I don’t have time,” meaning he didn’t carry a watch. The girl flashed a curt smile then quickly turned back around and continued chatting with her companion. The companion glanced briefly in Yurok Na’s direction before ducking her head down like people often do when they are gossiping about someone in proximity to them. Yurok Na turned toward the window and watched the coastline as the bus zoomed past the jagged rocky cliffs that jutted out from the highway and dropped off to the foamy sea below. This stretch of the highway was stark and lonely, and it only served to remind Yurok Na of the loneliness of his days.

As the bus neared Fort Bragg, Yurok Na peered at the dark sandy beach that seemed to go on for miles. He remembered when his wife had pointed out this area and said that many of her great-grandfathers people took refuge in this area from Spanish missionaries hell-bent on changing Indian people’s way of life. Life for Indians and Spanish alike had changed, but the remoteness and austerity of this uninhabited section of coastline had remained pretty much unaffected by those who trekked along its sandy shores.

The sound of the diesel driven bus became almost hypnotic as Yurok Na began to drift in his mind. At first he was mildly agitated as though he had forgotten something important, or left something at home that he was suppose to bring with him. He searched through his bag, but no, everything was there. Then he padded his pockets, but nothing unusual was missing there either. Though it nagged him a bit and he couldn’t completely put it out of his mind, he decided not to dwell on the elusive source of his feeling of forgetfulness. Instead, he turned back to his drifting and leaned to look out the window and peer at the gray sea stretching out away from the beach. He moved his focus from the sea to the image of his face reflected in the mirror-like finish of the glass and became transfixed by the view of the interior of the bus reflected beyond. He went on this way for some time, not really noticing the landscape or the waves lapping up on the shore, and not really thinking about the image of the old man projecting from the surface of the glass. Then, in a moment that came as abrupt as the earthquakes in this part of California, catching a glimpse of his deceased wife as if she were on the seat next to him startled his awareness. He shuddered slightly, as one would if they had just seen a ghost. He sat back in his seat and pondered the vision of his wife. The vision had jarred loose memories -- memories of times spent with his wife on their farm and during their years together, memories that opened his mind to the time when they had traveled together on the road he was riding over now. All the while, the nagging in the back of his mind kept prodding into his awareness, as if he should remember something he had forgotten.

Yurok Na remembered many things about his wife in the moments that passed. He remembered her patience and her bountiful generosity. Even now he could envision her standing by the gas stove he had put in to replace the sunken fire pit they had first built their humble house around. He would often delight in playing tricks on her. He liked to goose her, or just pinch her voluptuous butt whenever the opportunity arose, especially when others were around, just to see her face turn red with embarrassment. He chuckled to himself when he thought of the times he would say to her as they lay in bed together, “dear, you’d better stick your head under the covers because I’ve got to sneeze really big!” And when she did, he cut loose a fart and just rolled with laughter until she emerged from under the sheets and beat him for playing such a trick on her. He enjoyed going to dances and powwows with her. She always seemed to come alive with the sound of the drum at the White Deerskin Dance or the Jump Dance. The both looked forward to all the ceremonial gatherings of Indian people in the area where they lived. They would both sit and talk for hours about all their relations and share stories about life free from the intrusion of whitemen. He remembered too, how she used to talk to the animals around the farm and how the sound of her singing would bring quiet to his troubled mind.

Yurok Na must have remembered a thousand things as they kept rushing into his mind. He thought over each one as though he were reviewing a family photo album that he had found covered with dust, tucked away in some forgotten corner of a closet. Each memory, each image, regardless of how detailed, or how cherished, still left him with the feeling that something was amiss. He paused momentarily, as if in doing so he could catch a glimpse of what it was, and then he continued with his recollections.

The bus slowed and pulled off the road. The bus driver announced that they were going to stoop for about fifteen minutes in Point Arena, pick up a couple of passengers, and then continue on to San Francisco. A few of the passengers, including the two pierced and painted girls made their way off the bus and headed toward the Coke machine standing outside the small building housing the ticket booth and restrooms. A couple of minutes later the driver returned, trailed by two new passengers. They were an Indian couple and they nodded and smiled at Yurok Na as they moved past him and took seats a couple of rows behind him. As the bus sat idling on the side of the road, Yurok Na remembered that the Manchester-Point Arena Indian Reservation was nearby and he had some friends who lived there. They were people he and his wife had stayed with on one of their previous trips to the Bay area.

The thought of those people brought Yurok Na back to the time he and Sissa visited with them. It had been an atypically cold winter and they had been visiting his sister in San Francisco. Sissa had a slight cold and although she stayed indoors and kept warm and dry, she continued to worsen. When they left she was probably running a slight fever and was glad to be going home to rest in her own house. While spending the night at home of their friends on the Point Arena Res, she took a turn for the worse and had to visit a doctor. The doctor said she had pneumonia and would require a lengthy bed-rest, but should recover okay. The next day, Yurok Na and Sissa traveled to their house and he continued to care for her, even though her condition worsened. Yurok Na prepared a sweat for his wife thinking of a time when he had pneumonia with fever and had recovered after a good sweat. But she was so weak she could not be moved from her bed and would only moan in pain. Yurok Na entered the sweathouse without Sissa and offered prayers and songs on her behalf. When he returned to his wife’s side, she sat up to greet him and he thought she was improving. She spoke clearly of her love for him and how they had been blessed with a good life together. Then, she lay back on her bed, looked into his eyes for a moment, and closed her eyes, never to open them again. Two days later she died.

Her body was taken to a local hospital where an autopsy determined that she had died of a rare form of pneumonia called seratia. The doctors were baffled because there had been no known cases of infection from this airborne microorganism reported in the area of Yurok Na’s home. When Yurok Na informed the doctor that Sissa and he had been visiting his sister in San Francisco when she became ill, the doctor called the Bay Area public health officials to inquire about any other reported infections. The doctor learned that there had been a few cases, but no other information could be obtained. The doctor then told Yurok Na what he found out, and added that seratia was usually quite benign and seldom resulted in death. This did little to console the old Indian man who was now confronted with finishing out his days without his helpmate.

As the bus roared along down the coastal highway, Yurok Na remembered the time of Sissa’s death. He was too busy with the farm, the funeral, the family and the friends to dwell upon the event of her passing. After the funeral activities subsided, Yurok Na went to stay with his sister who was starting a new job, and he took care of his young nephew Ben. Months had passed before he returned to his house and the work on the place had piled up, even though friends had helped out with the care of the animals. Patiently and persistently, Yurok Na got the farm in the shape he wanted and began to make baskets for his sister to sell at her new store.

It was years after Sissa’s death that Yurok Na heard some news that angered him intensely. His friend Ernie, from Point Arena Res. told him something he had heard from a fellow tribesman. “Yurok Na,” Ernie began, “one of our tribal council members told me some interesting things that happened about the time of Sissa’s death. He said, the U.S. Navy was towing a barge around San Francisco Bay for a couple of days, spewing bacteria called seratia marsesans into the Bay Area. Supposedly, the bacteria were thought to be harmless and the Navy was testing to see how the bacteria could spread using the prevailing winds. It was sort of a biological warfare experiment, I suppose.”

Yurok Na shook with a chill at the thought of such a thing. The idea that a governmental body like the U.S. Navy practicing “germ warfare” on its own citizens repulsed him. He knew all the stories of diseases carried by the whiteman wiping out Indian people and how smallpox infected blankets had been given to Plains tribesmen to help hasten their demise, but this was in modern times. “Whitemen are crazy. Crazy enough to make their own people sick just to test a new weapon.” And then, no sooner had he said that when the shock came as he remembered that Sissa had died from seratia infection. “They killed my wife!” Yurok Na blurted out. “They killed Sissa!”

Yurok Na remembered the conversation he had had with Ernie, and how sick he felt with the seething of his own anger at the time. He learned that seratia marsesans was relatively harmless to people with healthy immune systems, but with people whose immune systems were compromised, in particular senior citizens, it was very deadly. Such was the case of Sissa who was an older person, suffering from a cold at the time of her infection with seratia. So the white man continues to persecute Indians even by the use of disease in modern times, Yurok Na thought to himself. “Is there no ceasing of their crimes,” he uttered to the air he was breathing.

Yurok Na looked slowly about the bus and noticed the people talking with one another or staring out the windows at the beautiful coastal scenery, or reading books to pass the time away on the bus-trip. As he was looking toward the two teenaged girls sitting a few rows ahead of him, gabbing and chuckling away, his eyes began to blur. Gone was the bitterness and pain about the “germ warfare” incident. Gone was the anger and any resentment he may have had toward the white man’s peculiar ways. Gone was Sissa, and he was alone. In the midst of all this remembering, and with silent tears streaming down his face, he remembered what it was he had forgotten all those many years ago. He had forgotten to mourn the loss of his best friend, his helper, and his mate. As he cried his heart out in that seat on the bus, he was finally able to mourn the loss of his beloved wife, Sissa..