The island had been declared “surplus federal property” for five years, the legal way of saying it had been hollowed out and deserted of soul. The government had spent years trying to keep its “worst of the worst” inside. But when we returned as the island’s rightful owners, the same government wanted to keep us out. The soullessness was now something to be protected. Throughout it all, the only beings that came and went as they pleased were the birds (including the namesakes of the island, the pelicans).
Fifty years later, you can only tell we were ever there from the graffiti on the watertower. Some might have heard a few headlines through their headphones on the audio tour; maybe that Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda visited us to draw attention to the cause. But fewer people know that we children were there too, and no one at all but me knows what really happened to Yvonne.
She and I met in the morning by the schoolhouse, under the bright gray January blanket of clouds. Yvonne wore her mother’s blue sweatshirt that sagged below her waist. The sleeves flopped beyond her hands as she bounced down the road. On the days when she wore a denim jacket and an orange bandana headband like the adults, she looked older, maybe even sixteen. Someone old enough to actually understand what exactly our parents meant by “fascist,” or why Nixon was one. But today, Yvonne simply wore a bright orange hair clip instead of the bandana.
I called her name above the roar of the bay winds whipping across the island, and she turned my way with stray hairs flowing across her freckled, smiling face. We had just learned that we had today off from school, so the possibilities were endless.
On school days, one of the adults might teach us how to make beaded jewelry (the traditional Ohlone way with clam and snail shell beads, not with European glass beads). Or we’d get a history lesson, like when Yvonne’s father, the leader of the whole occupation, told us about California’s history. My heart shriveled in fear when he introduced our class to the state-supported death squads who killed thousands of our people so that white men could search the Bay for gold. My trembling hand grabbed Yvonne’s during his story, and I worried that the squads might return someday. But she sat up straight and narrowed her eyes like the squads had never left. Like she was staring them in the face.
My favorites of the school days were when we learned the legends of our ancestors. Back home, I was partial to stories of the future: for weeks, I’d pretended myself as the Indian priestess who married Captain Kirk on a recent episode of Star Trek. My parents didn’t like that episode (my mom said something about “perpetuating noble savage narratives”), but I was just happy to see an Indian in space. I wondered: maybe if retaking this island within sight of San Francisco was too controversial for the white world of the U.S., there might instead be a new planet out there that we could call our own? If we could wait that long, maybe everyone could all get along? Still, as much as I preferred to imagine the future, I enjoyed the wonder of the old legends more than the horror of history lessons.
First, there was the Miwok legend of the creation of the world. According to the legend, water covered the entire world, except for Mount Diablo as the first spot of land. Then, our class learned the Chochenyo legend of Kaknu and the Body of Stone. Kaknu was part human, part bird, and a great hero. Despite being a powerful fighter, he knew no fight on the surface of the earth would free his people. So he folded his bird wings inward and dove down, through the sky and deep into the earth to the underground lair of an evil king. The lair was littered with the bones of Kaknu’s people, who the evil king was holding captive and feeding to his minions. Kaknu confronted the king, who had a body made of stone, and Kaknu defeated him in battle by striking the weak spot on his neck. Only then was the world above safe for Kaknu’s people to live freely.
On that cold January morning, Yvonne skipped over to me and playfully twisted her body back and forth, arms wrapping around herself one way and then the other. “Mount Diablo?” she asked me right away, shorthand for our secret game. While the other kids usually threw footballs on days off, we’d developed our own game based on the Miwok legend. We pretended that history was quickly reversing, like spinning a record around in the wrong direction and listening to the music backwards. The world was reverting back to being covered in water as it had been at creation, and we had to climb higher and higher to avoid the bay waters creeping up the island. Had this been back at school in the city, we’d have been too old for playing pretend. But the roaring wind, the lifeless prison buildings at the hilltop, and the oblivious city in the distance stirred something mythical into the air that allowed us to be however old we felt like being.
“Let’s do it,” I replied. We raced down to the docks, where our game began.
The docks were always busy, with boats delivering donations of food and supplies throughout the day. Our security force, which called itself “The Bureau of Caucasian Affairs,” staffed the docks to make sure no threats made it ashore. The Coast Guard had initially tried to blockade us, but eventually its boats just sat back and watched us from afar. I didn’t like the idea of them overseeing us all the time, but my mother said that I’d get used to the surveillance. “They are trying to scare us away with their eyes,” she said.
A particularly high wave rocked a boat carrying boxes of canned food. Yvonne and I stared as the wave grew and grew, ever taller until it was a tidal wave, splashing up on the dock toward us as it sought to cover the whole world. We scrambled up the hill, skidding on asphalt, hoping to outrun the next wave from the grasping bay. “Careful!” an adult yelled after us. “We’re avoiding the water!” Yvonne yelled back, and we ran on.
The next building up the hill was the officer’s club. The abandoned remains of a bar, a dance floor, and a bowling alley haunted the inside of the building.
“What is it?” Yvonne asked as I stared through its windows. “What do you see?”
The lingering traces of life and joy from the empty social club swirled together, and materialized into a group of ghosts. No whispers of isolation or genocide hid in their shared laughs, quick kisses, or intertwined hands; instead, the betrayal and pain of their world was fermented into a delicacy and splashed into their clinking glasses. They drank to the blaring, blissful promise of liberty and justice, for all– all at their party.
“Ghosts,” I said, turning to Yvonne with my eyes wide. “They want to trick us into their ghost world and trap us there. It looks fun from the outside, but you get caught and never want to leave.”
Yvonne grabbed my arm and tugged. “No! I won’t let them get you!” The gusting wind pushed us toward the door of the club, but we held on to each other and managed to escape farther up the hill.
At each bend in the path, we stopped to catch our breath and spoke through the same script: “It’s so beautiful up here.” “I can see Oakland.” “Wait– did you hear that?” “It’s the ocean. It’s still rising!” “Run!”
A few breaks later, our uphill dash ended at the cellhouse. The only way to keep going up was to go inside and climb up its three stories.
“We have to be quiet in here,” I whispered, sensing the spirit of isolation inherent in the walls.
Yvonne nodded back. “The evil on the island is at its strongest here,” she agreed.
We ducked inside the cellhouse entrance, but froze at the echoing footsteps of a prison guard ghost. If he caught us, we might be whisked away into his past, locked away from our families in the present. We pressed tight against the wall. Our breathing quieted and we squeezed each other’s hands, palms sweating.
When the footsteps receded, we took off for a spiral staircase down the row of cells. It was too far for a single dash, however, so we turned a corner and hid again to catch our breath and listen if the source of the footsteps had heard us.
Heart pounding, I looked to my side. I peered inside a tiny nine-by-five foot cell, trying not to awaken the dormant bones of the skeleton still trapped inside. “Corrections,” they were starting to call prisons recently. I swallowed. Could there be something inside me that was wrong, and needed correction? I thought of the Coast Guard drifting in the bay, and feared that the white world could find something, if it wanted to hard enough. My stomach sank.
They called this place The Rock, I suddenly remembered, and a chill went down my spine. “Yvonne,” I said. “The Rock. The Body of Stone.”
Her face froze and she grabbed my shoulders. She locked eyes with me. “We have to go. Now.”
I desperately wanted to go too, and for this all to be over. I envisioned our walk back down the hill to the schoolhouse and to the world of our parents, then back to the world of our old schools in the city. Maybe it would be less scary to learn real history after all. I’d had enough of the legends coming to life.
Yvonne had a different destination in mind, however. She looked around the corner for anyone approaching, then raced up the nearby stairwell.
“Yvonne!” I called. “Where are you going? I thought we were going down now!”
“No, we need to go up!” she yelled. “Otherwise the Bay will swallow us or the ghosts will trap us or the Body of Stone will–”
“That’s all over!” I said. “At least it’s over for me.”
“It’s not over!” she said. She slipped on a stair in her excitement, then recovered and raced further upward.
“Yvonne, come back!” I said, climbing a few stairs after her.
She reached the top level of cells and ran along the row. At this point, she was as high as any of us was ever going to get.
No one has ever believed me when I tell them what I saw next. Yvonne lost her footing a second time, this time sliding dangerously beneath the railing. I screamed her name, and she tried to hold on to something, but she slid completely out. Out, into empty space.
The only ones that could come and go freely from the island were the birds, I remembered, as Yvonne suddenly began to transform. Her tangled brown hair twirled into elegant white feathers, and the loose clothes hanging from her arms unfurled into graceful wings. For a moment, I thought she would spread her wings to descend safely. Instead, I saw her eyes narrow as she held her wings in tightly, and dove ever faster toward the hard concrete of the prison floor.
My scream tore out of my face. “Yvonne!”
Yvonne flew past the floor, slicing through the solid ground and burrowing deep into the Earth.
As an adult found us and yelled in the echoing cellhouse for a first aid team, Yvonne’s fall finally came to a stop in a vast cavern. The cavern was filled with human bones, thrown there by the white death squads a hundred years before. “Help! Is anyone here?” she yelled. But her voice echoed in the cave, without a response. I heard her voice and those of the first aid team echoing, but I could only shudder in a corner.
As her father held her motionless human body on his lap in a small boat and the outboard motor roared back to the hospital in the city, the Body of Stone emerged from behind a pile of bones with a stomp that shook the whole cavern. He roared at her, and she shivered. The roars filled my head for countless nights.
As her grieving parents decided to stay in the city, leaving the occupation without its leader, Yvonne fled from the Body of Stone and hid in a side cavern. Left without her, I had no games left to play anymore, on the island or otherwise.
As the rest of the occupation gradually withdrew from the island, leaving it deserted and lifeless once again, tears of despair seeped from Yvonne’s eyes. The stomping of the Body of Stone grew closer and quaked the rock against her back. On a boat back to the city, I wondered if it would be the rising water, the ghosts, or the prison that would catch me first.
As the occupation of the island inspired the growing Red Power movement across the country, Yvonne wiped her tears away, noticing that her arms were still wings. She then realized who she was: Kaknu, the bird-human hero. She helped me realize who I was as well: someone who didn’t have to wait for a new planet to fight for fairness. I created a new major for myself once I got to college, gathering and preserving my people’s stories.
As activists occupied more of our historical lands and won legal victories for Indian education, healthcare, and religious freedom, Yvonne fought the Body of Stone, evading its blows with her wings. She found a bow and arrow left in the cavern, and shot the Body of Stone in the weak spot on its neck. It fell with a monstrous thud. I had not been able to join her in the fight underground, but I was able to join it in the university halls. Maybe the fights were one and the same, after all.
All the while, Yvonne kept the ghosts of the academia parties from luring me into their insulated world, and helped me outrun the waves and cells that had chased us.
But what I wished for more than anything was to feel Yvonne tug at my arm again. To see her bounce down the steps calling my name. To hear her asking me, “What do you see?”
To be however old we wanted to be.
Written by: Matt Luedke
Matt Luedke is a former editor of Forum who continues to be inspired by the writing community he’s found through CCSF. He has also been published in Prairie Light Review and Ripples in Space. Links to his published works are at mattluedke.com.
Art title: Mountain on Ashes
Artist: Xiao Xiao
Xiao Xiao is from Xiamen Island, China and has called California home for the past decade. She studied Computer Science and just started to take classes in photography. She loves to think about co-op living, mental health, and living between two cultures. Find her at @xiao.xiao.o_o