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“Carl Meets His Cousin-Brother”

by Bobette Bibo Gugliotta

Rock Stairway to Acoma Pueblo, 1954“Rock Stairway to Acoma Pueblo, 1954,” Henry O. Tefft (Photographer)

Katsimo, or Enchanted Mesa, is a sandstone butte in clear view of Acoma Pueblo. It is 430 feet high, golden brown, made of steep walls and sharply turreted pinnacles with sharp-edged detritus heaped at its base. According to tradition, the Acomas once lived on its top. But one day, when many of the people were down in the fields, a storm caused the access path to slide away. Tragically, those on the ground lost their homes and those on the mesa died of starvation.

This novel is based on the true story of Soloman Bibo, a German- Jewish trader, and his Acoma wife, Juanita. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the Acomas elected Bibo governor of the pueblo, although not all of the tribe accepted him. Eventually Bibo moved his family to San Francisco. Katsimo, Mysterious Mesa opens with the return of the Bibos to Acoma for a summer visit. Their son, Carl, sees Katsimo for the first time and vows to climb it before the end of the summer. He encounters his teenage cousins, Wilbert and Horace, at the base of the pueblo. In this passage, Horace challenges Carl, whose arrival he resents, to climb up the steep split trail to the pueblo rather than take the footpath. Carl accepts the challenge.

~ ~ ~ ~

With a quick motion of his hand Horace indicated the path that the group was ascending. “Do you want to walk up the foot trail or do you want to climb the split trail?” He threw the choice at Carl like a challenge.

Without hesitating Carl replied, “The second one, the split trail.”

“Follow me.”

“Shimmering heat waves assaulted Carl as he stumbled along, trying desperately to keep up.”

Horace ran swiftly through the piles of talus at the foot of the cliff, weaving his way in and out of the rock fragments which the afternoon sun had baked to oven temperature. Shimmering heat waves assaulted Carl as he stumbled along, trying desperately to keep up. Above him rose perpendicular walls of sandstone indented with curious bits of carving; a fragment of a claw, part of a grotesque profile with an empty eye socket in deep shadow, the wing of a giant bird torn asunder. It was hard to believe that only wind and rain had eroded these forms.

At last Horace stopped. He flung a glance back over his shoulder, then disappeared. When Carl caught up to him he saw a deep cleft in the rock and above him Horace, making his way expertly, with toe and finger holds, up a wall so steep that it seemed impossible to climb.

“I can’t do it,” Carl said, but even as he thought it he scrambled on, reaching upward for the first indentations, his fingers slippery with sweat, thighs tensed for the push.

“Don’t look back,” Horace called.

It was a needless warning. To look back would have meant extra motion and Carl knew be did not have an ounce of strength to spare.

About halfway up there was a boulder a few feet square. Horace perched on this for a moment and called down, “Do you want me to wait for you and help you the rest of the way?”

“Trembling, he clung to the side of the precipice like a fly as pain shot through him and he watched blood spread out beneath his hand.”

“No.” Breathing was difficult now. Showers of sand and dust were dislodged as Horace climbed higher above him. Coughing and sputtering, Carl prayed for strength to reach that boulder where he could rest and catch his breath. At last it was at his fingertips, but as he reached for it his hand struck a sharp edge and a jagged cut in his palm drew a cry that he quickly bit down on. Trembling, he clung to the side of the precipice like a fly as pain shot through him and he watched blood spread out beneath his hand. The hot sandstone absorbed it like a blotter. Now he would try again. Despite the injured hand he got a firm grasp and this time he drew himself up.

Carl sat there for almost five minutes but during that time he did not look down. He bound up his wound as best he could with his pocket handkerchief, inspected the rips in his pants, and closed his smarting eyes, hoping the sudden moisture would wash some of the dust out.

“Need any help?” It was Horace, safe on the rock of Acoma.

Acoma Trail“Acoma Trail,” Unidentified (Photographer)

“No.” Carl began to climb again. This time it was easier. The cleft had narrowed so that he was able to brace himself by placing his palms on each side. It made the footwork on the slippery sandstone much more secure. It was darker in here but it was a welcome change from the blistering sun.

His legs ached, the muscles in his arms twitched with strain, and the cut in his palm throbbed with the pressure exerted on it against the walls of the cleft. Suddenly the hot sun lashed the top of his head but this time he was glad to feel it. He knew that he was almost there. Pausing for the final exertion, he saw an outstretched hand before him. The skin was bronze, the fingers slender but wiry, curved to match his. Then he heard, “Grab my hand and I’ll pull you the rest of the way.” Carl didn’t know who spoke the words but he was glad of the assistance.

The grip on his slashed palm was tight but he didn’t mind. The heave brought him to the top on his feet. He was face to face with Horace.

“You made it,” Horace said, and he seemed glad.

“I made it,” Carl echoed. “Thanks for pulling me up. I—” But he didn’t finish the sentence because suddenly Horace’s eyes narrowed, then flicked Carl from head to toe before he turned his back on him.

Confused at the rapid change from friend to stranger, Carl stared at the figure before him. Then he caught sight of Wilbert standing behind Horace, hands on hips, smiling and shaking his head.

“I was sent to look for the two of you,” Wilbert said. “Carl, I should have brought you up on my pony Zutu.”

“I don’t know how to ride a horse,” Carl blurted out, relieved at being able to confess his inadequacy to this good-natured relative.

“I’ll give you a riding lesson tomorrow. If you can climb the split trail, riding a horse will be as easy as that.” Wilbert snapped his fingers. “Horace is the mountain goat in the family. He looks skinny but don’t let him fool you. The muscles in his legs are like knots of iron but they work as fast as a shquwi, a rattlesnake. You shouldn’t have let him talk you into it.”

“He didn’t. I wanted to try.” Carl turned around slowly and looked back down the precipice he had ascended. His head wobbled and he felt a twist of nausea in his middle.

Taking him by the arm, Wilbert said, “Let’s go we’ll give you some wild tea to drink. It’ll cool you off and push your stomach down your throat, back where it belongs.”

“And we’ll put some spider plant on that cut. My Aunt Placida just ground some up fresh today,” Horace added, his voice friendly now.

“One minute Horace held out the olive branch, the next minute he whipped you with it.”

There it was again. One minute Horace held out the olive branch, the next minute he whipped you with it. When Carl got mad, which wasn’t often, he stayed that way for a while, but he didn’t change in a split second and he wasn’t sure that he could get along with somebody who did.

Behind the two boys stretched the three-story stone and adobe houses of Acoma, built in terraces. The sun dropped in the sky and the big rock and all the buildings on it mellowed to pale pink brushed with lavender shadows.

Acoma Church and Pueblo“Acoma Church and Pueblo,” Unidentified (Photographer)

Wilbert began to walk down the dusty road, then he paused and called back to Carl, “First you better get your face washed before your mother sees you. Come on, cousin-brother.”

Carl would learn in the weeks to come that the term “cousin-brother” was a sign of acceptance. He would hear variations of it. A friend who was not related at all, but who was especially close, might be called cousin-friend.

“Hello there, Carl, I’ve been looking all over for you.” It was his father’s voice. Carl saw Solomon standing near the church steps waving him on.

As Carl approached, Solomon’s glance quickly took in the dirt and dust, the injured hand, the tattered cloth hanging from one trouser leg, but he made no comment. “Have you decided to stay?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“Your mother, Leo, and I will be coming to Acoma to spend San Juan’s Day. If you want to come to San Rafael sooner, just tell your Aunt Placida. She’ll get a message to us. If we don’t hear, we’ll plan on taking you back with us on June 24, the day of the celebration.”

“All right, papa.” Before running to catch up with his cousins, Carl took a last look at the majesty of Katzimo in the distance. He hoped that the mighty citadel was aware of his existence now.