I don’t hear any more.
I listen, but I don’t hear the stories
I have taken on the mien
Of an adult listener,
Looking like I actually hear
What I’m listening to.
But, awareness has fled;
Turned down to the faintest glimmer.
Awareness flickers only when boredom
Threatens to offend others.
I can’t hear as a child hears,
Turning my head, looking about in wonder;
Sniffing, scratching, shuffling about.
I must sit still, look attentive, and listen.
So I no longer see the grand pictures
As I saw them once
When the earth stood closer to me.
They no longer reflect
Fascination that, flame-like,
Burned specially spoken words
Into unforgettable images,
Yet, in thinking of them,
I see today a particular image;
No, perhaps it is a vision,
Of Tommy Rawson, early rancher
And honest-to-goodness storyteller,
Standing by his old red pickup
Fifty odd years ago;
Ready to defend Crown Valley
Against all trespassers.
He had watched us top the grade
In a Pontiac station wagon
From Diamond Valley;
Watched as we let ourselves in the gate;
As we drove onto the ranch.
And now, with his truck pulled to the side,
He provided a glimpse of the old west.
Not everyone was welcome
Up there in those days.
My Dad stopped the car
And got out to identify himself.
“Come on ahead!” Tommy shouted
Across the hot summer stubble.
And we drove into a valley
Bordered with low hills,
Surrounded by bright grain fields.
The great teller of tales
Waited for us to draw up to him
And then, interrupted by the wild barking
Of his little dog, Fido, he welcomed us
To the most spiritual place
That a boy’s simple heart could imagine.
I can see Tommy Rawson now,
With my eyes turning back through time.
And, under the brim of his campaign hat,
He looks back at me.
My mother points to his hair.
He doffs his hat and bends over.
“Black hair, son! Look! Pull it!
They call me the black sheep of the family.”
Seventy plus years and still
The blood of Old Spain
Through his mother Maria Zuniga
But that’s history.
I’m not here to repeat
What only adults want to know.
I’m telling you what I saw as a child,
What I heard that summer afternoon
So long ago.
I was looking, beyond Tommy’s
Rough-rider outfit and lace-up boots,
Past the storyteller, down the dirt road
To a bend in the shallow field
Where it split, running east and south to Tecolote
And west to the ranch proper.
It was near this parting of roads
That my eye was fixed on an enormous oak tree;
The strangest tree I’d ever seen.
Oaks are often described as “spreading,”
Faithful to the Charter Oak
Or Longfellow’s “spreading chestnut tree.”
But this oak reached out in all directions;
Its thick powerful low-slung branches
Turning as arms would stretch
If they were struggling to embrace the unseen.
And it stood alone, a leafless, weathered, haunting
Figure of a tree
In a field of dry cut stubble
Shot through with summer’s sunlight,
Watched over by white cotton clouds.
“Look at that!” I whispered against my mother’s arm.
The storyteller heard me.
“That is the Phantom Oak, Bobby.
Come on to the house, you folks,
And I’ll tell you all about it.”
The old Dodge truck disappeared
Briefly in its own dust and we trailed it,
Rolling into a ranch yard that time had no place in.
It was not like the rest of California.
None of the improvements of the modern age were there.
Peacocks cried out. I marveled at their gaudy plumage.
Giant eucalyptus trees groaned
Under the rush of mid-afternoon winds.
I smelled the sheep and cattle
Corralled near the famous Japanese barn.
And under a dark and brittle old chinaberry tree,
I heard Tommy tell this story.
Many years ago, maybe it was 1890, probably July.
There was corn planted in the field
Just east of the fence near the creek bed
That you drove through.
We used to have people
Coming up here to work.
In those days my mother helped
Take care of the ranch.
Sometimes she gave work out
To men that just needed
Something to eat and a place to sleep.
Well, one day an Indian; ‘called himself Jose;
He came to my mother looking for work.
And she told him, “Go with the foreman
To the cornfield.” He was given a hoe
And was told to start at the end
Nearest the big oak tree.
It was fairly hot that day;
But this man, he had water.
Nevertheless, he came to the house
About three o’clock with his hoe.
The foreman approached him
And asked how come he came in.
And, this man Jose said
That he was told to come back here
By a Mexican on a fine black horse
Who was just by the big oak tree.
“There is nobody out there this afternoon!”
The foreman told him.
And then, my father walked up
And asked the Indian
Who it was that he had seen.
The young man replied that the horseman
Had talked to him for quite a while.
He spoke of treating other men with respect
And caring for the poor and needy
By seeing that they had money.
The hired hand said that this caballero
Sounded pretty important
Because he wore two pistols.
And so… when the hombre told him
To stop hoeing and come to the house,
“But who was it that told you this?” he was asked.
The worker said the stranger called himself
“The Robin Hood of California.”
“No, no,” my father demanded,
“What was his name?”
“Joaquin Murrieta!” my father cried,
“He was a bandit. They hanged him.
“That was the name the rider gave me.”
”Where did he ride in from?” the foreman asked.
“I don’t know. He was just there on his horse in front of the tree.”
“Where did he go?”
“I don’t know, senor. He just disappeared.”
I was hearing and listening at the same time.
I stood where time stopped,
A small child frozen into a scene
All too spellbinding, too compelling
To be subjected to scrutiny.
And, as if that long ago conversation
Was a part of a real world, I said,
“The Indian man saw a ghost!”
“Yes!” cried Tommy Rawson.
He was triumphant
For he could see the Phantom of the Oak
Reflected in my eyes.
“And I tell you, this is the truth!”
It was Joaquin Murrieta.
Others have seen him
Riding past the oak tree,
At night when there’s a good moon,
And right in broad daylight.”
“Can I see him?” I asked, alive with hope.
“Maybe.” he replied
As he climbed into his red pickup.
“But, you’ve got to be a good boy
And mind your Momma and Poppa!”
“Is that why they call it the Phantom Oak?”
I asked as he started the motor.
“Yes, Bobby, and if you come back
To see me someday,
I’ll show you where the bandit Murrieta
Buried a box full of money, a treasure chest,
Right here on the ranch!”
Tommy turned away and the pickup
Rumbled off in a cloud of dust
Leaving behind a chorus of wailing peacocks,
Grunting pigs and bleating sheep.
As we turned around to leave
As I sat there in the back seat
Watching the peacocks standing in the ranch yard
With their feathers unfurled in rainbows of color.
Their wild calling sent a song soaring,
Flying away with the strong wind
That sweeps Crown Valley
That on that distant day, set the great eucalyptus trees
To roaring and shimmering as if,
Like pages in a book,
Their rushing leaves could close
A chapter in this life of mine.
Three o’clock. Sixty-two years ago.
I still hear those trees.
I see the wonderful storyteller.
My mind feels hollow,
Yet his voice is still there
In the wind, with the leaves,
I listened… and I heard.