Four Wintu Tales by Steve Gilmartin

Four Wintu Tales

Steve Gilmartin

Author’s Note:

These four pieces spring from linguist Alice Shepherd’s English translations of northern California Wintu tales told to her by tribe member Grace McKibbin. Shepherd’s process was to make preliminary, syntax-free, word-by-word translations, which she would then fashion into a finished narrative. In crafting my versions, I made sure not to read the finished translation but looked at Shepherd’s preliminary translations only. Then, before comprehensibility was allowed to fully emerge, I came up with my own heavily modified free adaptations of these.



And he said “uh uh, uh uh.” And he was saying “hu hu hu…hu hu hu…” And Summer came and then Autumn and Autumn came in so fast that it came during the Summer and they looked in all the corners of Autumn even as Summer fell hard into the south. Autumn came back falling in from the south and Winter shook them until Spring told it to stop. Autumn fell from the south again and Spring came back and it came again as if it were lost and wandering and the widower looked everywhere for his Dove and called out but no uh uh. Dove Woman was killed that Spring before she had even arrived.

Dove’s husband searched for Dove Woman but could not find her. Even in his sleep he cried “hu…” Everybody else had stopped looking long ago. He found nothing. He looked for Dove Woman and did not find her. He woke along with everyone else and got up to look. Nobody knew. One day he got up to look for Dove Woman and found nothing. One day he got up to look for his Dove Woman and found nothing. One day he got up to look for his Dove Woman and she was not anywhere. One day he looked for Dove Woman and did not find her. One day he looked for Dove Woman and found nothing. One day he looked for his Dove Woman and she was nowhere to be found. Repeat it. She was dead, okay? She was somewhere else dead. The husband convinced everyone to wake at the same time and walk up and down. The man cried “hu……hu, uh uh, uh uh, hu……hu” as he searched. Then he found nothing.

Then he looked found nothing. Then nothing. Then one day he found nothing. Then one day he got up and found nothing. Then one day he got up to look for Dove Woman but uh uh. Then one day he looked for Dove Woman and nothing. Then one day he went to look for Dove Woman and she was nowhere to be found. Then one day he woke up and nothing.

There was shaking and stopping and Summer fell again and everyone was thinking about Spring which eventually crossed into the north as they kept looking. They looked for Dove Woman. Try to understand.



Things were busy accelerating away from each other or switching places. The world worked when everything was spinning. “The people will chase you down,” Jay said to the killer spirit. Jay saw the killer spirit’s face becoming big and small, wide and narrow, like an accordion, and that this was as close as the killer spirit could get to laughing. The killer spirit was very clever and hid so that Jay thought the coast was clear. The face of the killer spirit was still moving in and out like an accordion. “Tell everyone I’m here,” he said.

Sometimes things moved so fast they changed identity—a rock became a log became a hook. So Jay flew from house to house warning everyone loudly about the killer spirit, but he also told them where it was if they wanted to look. Only there was no killer spirit, just a log and a rock, and everything was moving away from everything else or else about to trade places so that it would seem as if everything was a reflection and nothing had changed. No one wanted to look.

“My purpose is to watch someone else who is going to die in a pretty faraway house,” Jay said. “Look,” said the killer spirit, “I just want to kill something, and you’re closest.” Jay moved away and hoped that the killer spirit would be gone when he looked back, but the killer spirit was still there. Jay might glide in, land calmly, and look down at a blackberry and find himself staring into the face of the killer spirit. Jay explained that he had tried to get people to visit. Jay did not know what he was saying he was so scared. Jay became something that would want to hide inside something else. In his fright Jay’s teeth clacked together loudly. “It’s fun to be chatting,” the killer spirit said. “I’m going to be here a long time and you’re not, so why don’t you just go with it? If I could laugh I’d be laughing right now. If I could die, I’d die laughing. I only noticed that recently. I like this.” “I am watching someone else who is going to die in a house far enough away that I should leave right now,” said Jay. “I am a person, unlike you.” “Go tell everybody that you’ve seen me,” said the killer spirit. “Go away,” said Jay. “First,” the killer spirit said, “you have to fly away.” Even when Jay flew away, the killer spirit was there looking at him and Jay could feel it. “Don’t,” said Jay. “Do you want to hear how I kill?” the killer spirit said.


Wind and Lightning

“You’ve frightened so many,” said Wind to Lightning. “You’re terrible, an earth destroyer, more terrible than I! You win. You beat me, and everybody else is practically dead with fear. You are stronger. You are bad.”

Wind went away for a long time. Wind seemed very frightened but slowly began to blow anyway, a small frightened blowing at first. Wind said, “You are terrible” again.

Wind lived in a house where nothing would stay put. Wind listened a long time. Wind felt the heavy weight of being inside. Wind dumped bones all over the land and then disappeared. Wind caused some thirsty creatures to drink up the lake whole. Wind came back blowing strong as a whirlwind. Wind blew the lake out of itself. Wind blew a long time and then went away to regain his strength.

“Well, I’m done,” Lightning said. “I’m going to go lie down in my house.”

Then Lightning suddenly appeared followed by thunder far away. Then it split and cracked open rocks and trees. Then it rained and rained, poured rain and Lightning jumped and thunder threw itself against Wind’s home. The tree burned black. The thunder came closer and Lightning again struck a tree. The land became still. The lake water moved everywhere it wasn’t. The earth shook as Lightning suddenly beat and shook it until entire mountains trembled and trees knocked together so that it all swept up into the air. “Stop!”

Some huge creature’s bones had become the big bones of the land. Pointed mountain peaks were leveled by Wind’s terrible blowing, and rocks and leaves flew. “Okay, I’ll stay home and put everything inside my house,” Wind said. “Oh, I am very frightened.”

“No,” said Lightning. Lightning went running along the earth striking and running until it disappeared from sight and went inside. Lightning went outside but was still. Lightning struck the top of the house and split it apart. Lightning said, “Wind, now you must stop.” Lightning said, “We’re both strong but which of us is stronger?”

Lightning re-entered. Lightning and Wind challenged each other again. Let’s find out. Lake didn’t know whether to be lakewater or wind. It wasn’t there anymore. It was dark. It had jumped from somewhere that had being. It died down. It blew off the ends of the earth and so hard that Wind was the only sound. It blew like two hundred winds. It all rose up into the sky. Everything fell over but stayed inside. Everybody alive was scared. Earth was destroyed. Do you want to destroy the earth? But you’re destroying Earth and yourself.

After a long time, Lightning said, “Wind, you liar, could you say you weren’t scared?”


How People Stopped Being Flowers

A long time ago, flowers were people who were flowers. The people spread their petals and controlled insects. It was a simple life and it felt so good. But there was a problem: they didn’t like standing in one place. They’d seen that animals had legs that allowed them to move across the earth. But what kind of moving animals would the people be? They needed someone to tell them and looking around saw that the one who named the flowers was standing there looking at them, his expression neutral. He said he would name the people too and that the new names would cause them to begin moving across the earth. But the Namer got mixed up and named each person after a different kind of flower: he named them Johnny-Jump-Up, Easter Lily, Snowdrop, Redbell, etc., and he named the flowers with these same names. He went person to person naming until he ran out of names. Then he would start over and name another set of people Johnny-Jump-Up, Easter Lily, Snowdrops, Redbell, etc.

The Namer gathered all the named together, flowers and people alike, and told them what he had done. Each person was named after a flower and, it could also be said, each flower was then named after a person. And so it went, the naming rocking back and forth like day and night until back-and-forth naming seemed natural.

The flowers shimmered brightly in the sun and were unconcerned, but the naming upset the ones who wanted to move like animals. They leaned toward each as if they were part of a single unified field. They looked at how it was before the Namer named and how it was now, and this thought was like a night that never ended. It was more mixed up now than it had ever been.

The people wanted revenge against the Namer but the Namer was gone. They’d been duped because now everything was named for flowers. And if you called a person by a flower name, the person would stop their flower motions and turn around as if that were their name. And when they’d realized what they’d answered to, they’d chase after you, yelling at you as if you were the Namer. But at least that was a way to tell the difference between flowers and people: flowers didn’t yell and chase you down.

© Steve Gilmartin


Steve GilmartinSteve Gilmartin is the author of a chapbook, Comes Up to Face the Skies (Little Red Leaves, 2013), and his fiction and poetry have appeared in a number of print and online publications, including Café Irreal,Double Room, Mad Hatters’ Review, Lunch Ticket, Poemeleon, Drunken Boat, Able Muse, e ratio, Eleven Eleven, BlazeVox, Cannot Exist, and Otoliths. He lives in Berkeley, California.