Bill Post had married a handsome Rumsen Indian girl. Her name was Anselma
Onesimo and her people had lived along Carmel Valley and its bountiful
river for centuries. According to Anselma, her tribe had sprung from beneath
the earth on the day of creation. The Rumsen people considered the Sur
Mountains as spiritual ground and spoke of Mount Pico Blanco as the navel
of the world.
The constraints of time were suddenly made more per-tinent by the return
of the southern gales. Bill's plans for their cabin were instantly altered
to accommodate present needs and it quickly became a slant-roofed, one-room
hut near Soberanes Creek. This proved not to be the most favorable of
The expectant father desperately hand split cedar shakes by the hour without
recourse to food or rest. Anselma's lying-in time was uncomfortably close
at hand, and Boy Bill Post desperately raced his hammer against the lightning-rent
tempest that momentarily threatened to descend upon their heads.
Anselma's cries from within the rude shelter informed Bill Post that his
firstborn and the gale might possibly arrive simultaneously. Then a sudden
explosive crash of thunder heralded the initial, pelting pebbles of rain.
It also proclaimed the welcome cries of his first child.
Post managed to secure the last few cedar shakes to the roof just in time
to greet Charles Francis Post. Bill's gift to his burgeoning family was
a tight shelter and dry stores. Not much in the way of a defense against
the wrath of God perhaps, but better than canvas and poles in those wilds.
March 1, 1859, the day the majestic gales attended the birth, also marked
the sad loss of four sound ships. To seal the bargain, the coast of Monterey
was sorrowfully altered by rock-grinding waves and carnivorous tides.
There were other unique signs accompanying the birth, according to the
mother, but it wasn't for some time that anyone realized that young Frank
was also the first child born in the high Sur under the American flag.
In any event, the child's nativity was accredited as genuinely auspicious,
and it was noted by family members that unusual events occurred on the
anniversary of that particular date every year.
By the first of June that same year, Bill Post had built his new family
a credible home higher up on the banks of the Soberanes, and he had begun
to move on a few head of livestock to see how they fared before establishing
a larger herd.
Bill Post had grown into a man of relatively broad experience. He was
the son of a successfully retired sea captain from New London, Connecticut,
and the family counted itself honored to have had ancestors aboard the
Mayflower. A typical Yankee, both innovative and practical, Bill always
felt equal to any task he set for himself.
In 1858 Bill Post had had the good sense to marry Anselma, and though
he appraised his life as rich in experience, nothing had quite prepared
him for fatherhood. He found himself looking for direct reflections of
his own instincts and manner in the person of the child. This seemed only
natural to Anselma, though Bill's observations took on an unsettling character
the more he studied the matter. Baby Charles Francis Post seemed remarkably
self-absorbed and uncommonly introspective for an infant.
Anselma quietly insisted there was absolutely no reason for concern. It
was the child's Rumsen Indian blood at play. Indian babies were rarely
clamorous unless soiled or left without proper attention. Indeed, Anselma
exhibited great interest in her child's reflective temperament. She said
it was a sign of great insight. This did little to assuage his father's
concern, however, and Bill continued focusing closely on his firstborn
for signs of some subtle indisposition.
Bill never ascertained anything beyond his own overanxious concerns, for
Frank bloomed quite normally, though he remained quiet when he had nothing
of importance to say. The child retained information easily and brought
a fixed and patient concentration to every new experience. By the time
the boy was three, Bill Post was forced to accept Anselma's elementary
appraisal of the situation. Little Frank assuredly perceived and understood
more than most tykes his age, but he kept his insights to himself, as
did all his mother's people.
Little Frank loved to trail behind his mother as she drifted off into
the barrens or high passes on one of her herb and medicine-gathering expeditions.
Sometimes they would come across other parties of foraging Rumsen and
happily move along together for a day or two exchanging news, gathering
pine nuts and birds' eggs, and hunting small game when the opportunity
This singular practice made Bill Post extremely uncomfortable from the
outset, and he voiced innumerable objections to the custom. But if he
thought for a moment he might discourage his wife's basic Indian compacts
and traditions, he was pitifully mistaken. Anselma considered foraging
as an important part of an ancient and magic family responsibility. The
very process required vast knowledge and humble reverence, and Heaven
help anyone who interfered.
After a while Bill came to see that thorny point for himself and, with
his usual Yankee practicality, let Anselma do as she pleased. He just
got used to it, as he was meant to. He also became acclimated to little
Frank, who sometimes looked at his father as though they had met somewhere
else, in another time-a very disconcerting air when adopted by a child.
Bill also became accustomed to his son's long, ruminative pauses when
asked a question. Little Frank seemed to ponder every inquiry seriously,
regardless of magnitude. He always answered with disarming simplicity
and truthfulness. These were not qualities Bill Post necessarily wanted
his son to disavow in favor of thoughtless social spontaneity, so he adopted
a circumspect manner when conversing with the child on any important subject.
From little Frank's perspective the whole world made sense. A moment's
balanced reflection always served to place every reality on an even plane.
The truth always made itself brightly evident to him. Even awash in a
sea of distortion, the truth was easily defined and understood. His reluctance
to speak about all he knew was bred in the bone, as his mother had always
contended. The fixed symmetry evident in all things, spiritual and physical,
was perfectly resolved to little Frank's way of thinking.
It was with his mother that Frank shared the greatest and most diverse
of dialogues. Oddly, much of it was nonverbal and needed little in the
way of physical inflection to disclose infinite subtleties. The boy fairly
exercised himself in all the languages at hand without showing much preference
for any one in particular. English, Spanish, and Rumsen phrases were all
the same to little Frank. He would happily express himself using elements
of all three languages simultaneously.
Though he found it peculiar, it never disturbed the child when his father
failed to hear or discern the more enchanted particulars that always appeared
so obvious to the boy, but he possessed a native discretion and never
discussed that part of his world with anyone but his mother and then only
in their own special dialects. There could be little doubt of Frank's
Indian inheritance, but this was not to say that Bill Post had not left
his mark. The child displayed evident qualities of ingenuity, endurance,
and courage typical of a Connecticut Yankee. The boy even possessed the
amiable aspect and rolling gait of a Grand Banks seaman as irrefutable
proof of his father's bloodline.
Little Frank also shared his father's passion for birds and the broad
vistas of the Pacific. Father and son spent many evenings watching the
sunset beyond the opalescent horizon while the gulls wheeled and called
overhead. Bill would try to explain what lay beyond the oceans, but his
son focused only on what could be seen. It would have been all the same
to the boy if nothing whatsoever lay over the horizon. He loved the beauty
of the sea for its own sake and asked nothing more of it.
Bill noticed that prolonged contemplation of the bright ocean panoramas
occasionally made his son almost giddy. It was then that little Frank
would talk mysteriously of the Ancients who had once lived in these mountains,
the humans who had stared out over those same bright waters before time
was recorded. Bill Post often found his son's manner of expression curious;
the object of the boy's focus was so unlike that of other children his
If Bill Post ever required valid proof of his son's native predispositions,
it materialized on a dangerous night in mid-March. It was a night rent
with contrary gales, hazardous winds, and lightning that owned the skies
for minutes on end. It was a night not unlike that of Frank's birth, with
its attendant natal pyrotechnics. The boy was a hardened veteran of tempests
of equal ferocity since that auspicious night, but storms inspired curiosity
rather than fear in the child. Indeed, little Frank rather enjoyed a really
spirited southwester. He would ask his father to take him to watch the
monstrous seas cleave themselves against the great rocks of the coast.
On this particular night, little Frank took no joy in the storms, nor
in the safety and warmth afforded by his soft bed and downy quilt. His
mother had departed on one of her usual hunting expeditions into the mountains
three days earlier. She had promised to return before the weather broke.
Frank's father had heartily regretted letting Anselma continue with her
usual native routines because she was carrying another child. He felt
uneasy about the effects her strenuous endeavors and the wilderness might
have on mother and unborn child alike.
At any other time little Frank would have thought nothing of his mother's
departure except to feel slightly neglected because he could not accompany
her. He had come down with a slight cold, and his father had insisted
that the boy stay at home until the symptoms subsided.
The shattering tempest grew in intensity, and it was about midnight when
Frank heard his father rise, dress, and depart to check the barn and the
frightened stock. It was then that a feeling of apprehension and barren
anxiety settled on the boy's soul like a wet hide. It made him shiver.
Something was wrong, and little Frank was at a loss to know why he felt
so distraught. Sitting up, he looked out the rain-streaked window. In
the distance, he could see the light of his father's storm lantern moving
about inside the barn, so he knew that his father was fine. But he worried
sorrowfully about his mother. He was almost sick wondering where she was
on such a raging night. The boy closed his eyes tight to drive away the
unwelcome images, but he became aware of an even stronger light trying
to edge its way past his closed lids to gain his attention.
At first the child thought it was his father's lantern, but when he opened
his eyes he realized the light came from a different source altogether.
This light shimmered in the corner of his room, shimmered with a gentle
luminescence unlike anything the child had ever seen before. He had noticed
the wakes of passing ships glow with the same quality in the moonlight,
and this pale glow, akin to the water's strange radiance, shed little
of itself on the immediate surroundings.
The glow took the form of a tapered pillar at first, but when his eyes
became accustomed to the subtle and wonderful color variations emanating
from the luminescence, he became convinced that the light was a who and
not a what. This realization infused him with a warmth and confidence
that seemed totally natural and admissible. It was as if he had always
known about this phenomenon even though he had never experienced it before.
The glowing pillar moved slowly toward the door to Frank's room, and there
it waited shimmering with green, blue, and violet pulses of brilliance.
The boy nodded with instant comprehension, jumped from his cot, and quickly
dressed. A lightning flash suddenly raced across the sky. The crash of
its thunder followed almost immediately. Alert to the storm once more,
the boy pulled on his boots. Little Frank was not fond of wearing shoes
of any description. He was happiest with the soft dirt between his toes,
but he obeyed the thought as it came to him.
The glowing pillar floated through the cabin to the front door and waited.
Grabbing his jacket and rabbit-skin cap, Frank followed the light out
into the storm. There was no sign of his father anywhere, so the boy followed
the radiance without further pause. The brilliance guided the boy precisely
over well-used paths through the eastern pastures until it reached the
mountain. There the guide waited for the boy before slowly ascending a
craggy trail that led to the high ridges. Frank had followed his mother
over many of those same paths gathering medicinal plants.
As the boy began to climb the trail, the storm, which had been furious
for the past six hours, turned dangerous in the extreme. Lightning fingered
across the sky in every direction at once. The explosions of thunder made
the earth tremble beneath the child's feet, and the rain pelted down like
hail to the point of pain. Faithfully, the illumination never distorted
or wavered from the path, so Frank followed without fear. The winds rose
to the tenor of plaintive screams, so that every limb and leaf, every
blade and bush was helplessly torn and wrenched in obedience to its whims.
As he climbed, Frank witnessed ancient trees cleaved down the center by
the stress of contrary winds first raging from the west and then rounding
the compass. Sometimes the gusts appeared to sweep from all directions
at once. Downed tree limbs and torn vegetation became more dense the higher
he climbed, but still the glowing guide remained constant and reassuring,
never deviating a degree from the center of the trail, never disordered
by wind or the cutting sheets of rain.
Near the top of the track a shallow dale gave spartan shelter to a grove
of ancient and distorted oaks. Little Frank struggled over the rise and,
clutching his collar against the rain, watched as the light moved to the
center of the grove and then stopped. As the boy followed, he noticed
a slight alteration in its quality. Changing from the cooler, calming
colors, the light now became resplendent with bright streaks of yellow
and gold. Vibrant flashes of crimson amplified the sense of urgency. Then,
within the briefest moment, the guide flared brilliantly and was gone,
leaving only its ghost image imprinted on the boy's eyes. Little Frank
waited a few seconds for his vision to clear and then walked to the spot
in the grove where the flickering pillar had last stood. Bursts of lightning
conveniently illuminated his way so that the path was well defined.
At the bottom of the path little Frank spotted a fallen tree, its great
mass of roots exposed and waiting for death. Another flash of lightning
and the boy sighted something else: a figure pinned under a lattice of
heavy limbs and branches. The boy instantly recognized his mother reaching
out and calmly calling his name.
Frank ran to her, gripped her hand, and began sputtering questions in
their special dialect. Anselma quieted her son and said that she was unhurt,
just trapped. The large limb lying across her back would have to be raised
for her to slide free under her own power. The limb was sixteen inches
broad and with the attendant branches, a considerable mass of wood for
anyone to move.
Without thinking further, the boy attempted to raise the limb, but his
little arms were no match for its girth. Then he remembered watching his
father clear tree stumps from the pasture. He looked about until he found
a stout broken limb. He wedged the hefty bough under the offending limb
in such a manner that, should he have the strength to push the branch
up over his head a short ways, his mother might pull herself free. But
the weight of the limb precluded a four-year-old boy from doing anything
of the kind.
A standard contention of the ages asserts that the bonds between mother
and child may easily accommodate the insuperable. So, lacking all sense
of the improbability of the task at hand, little Frank pushed up on his
makeshift lever and moved forward.
He managed to push the branch up over his head. He repeated the exercise
twice more, and before he knew it his mother was standing by his side
saying that it was safe to release the limb.
The boy let go and smiled up at his mother. Anselma knelt to see to her
son. They were both soaked to the bone, but once satisfied that her child
was not injured in any way, Anselma shouldered her bag and shepherded
Frank down the steep trail by the incessant flashes of blue-white lightning.
When they at last neared the house, Anselma saw her husband's storm lantern
approaching from the direction of the road. Bill Post ran forward, gathered
his little family in his arms for a moment, and then quickly ushered them
toward the safety of the house. The relief in his eyes almost came to
tears. Back under shelter, Bill quickly stoked the fire and went to fetch
fresh towels from the cupboard. While Anselma saw to dry garments, Bill
retrieved a bucket of rainwater from the overflowing butts on the porch.
He hung a small cauldron from its iron hook over the fire and set the
water to heat so Anselma might bathe the child and prevent further chill.
Bill Post at last spoke of his anxiety. When he returned to the house
and found the front door wide open and little Frank gone, he had not known
where to look. He had searched for two hours without a sign. Happily,
Bill observed that his wife and child seemed hardly fazed by their wild
adventure. So while he fed them honey and warm bread, he asked them to
recount what had happened. There was never a note of reproach or recrimination
in his voice. Bill Post was far too happy to have his loved ones safe
at home for gratuitous displays of troubled indignation.
True to her pure Rumsen nature, Anselma leaned toward the taciturn. Her
speech was known for its veracity and brevity, and Bill did not live in
hope of a colorful or detailed explanation. She spoke of coming down the
trail when a great wind tore a tree from the earth and trapped her beneath
its branches. Then her son found her and helped her escape by shifting
the biggest limb. There was nothing more to say for the moment.
Bill shook his head and looked to his son, though he entertained little
hope of much help in that direction. Even before his father spoke, Frank
piped up with his mixed patois of English, Spanish, and Rumsen. It always
took a moment to coax Frank to pick one language and stick with it. The
boy told his father that he had been in bed when his mother's spirit had
come for him in a light. She had led him up the mountain to move the tree
so she could come home. Frank said his meager piece with an air of all-inclusive
acceptance, as though this kind of experience was an everyday occurrence.
Again Bill shook his head, but he was patient enough to realize that it
might take days to secure all the details of the story.
As Anselma tucked her child under his goose-down quilt that night, the
boy looked at his mother and asked whether he could someday learn to call
her with the light when he was in trouble. Anselma looked at her son,
caressed his face, and told him that the light was not something one learned
how to do. Love made it happen. Little Frank smiled, blinked once or twice,
and fell asleep, content with the answer.
The next day, after the storms had passed well east, Bill Post rode out
with the Ortiz brothers to survey the general damage and do what they
could to clear the trails. Bill eventually had to rig two mules with a
wagon harness to help move the heavier debris.
Later that day and only out of curiosity, Bill and his men rode up the
ridge trail to inspect the site his wife and son had spoken of. It was
just as they had said, possibly worse to Bill's way of thinking. The local
damage was extensive due to the erratic winds.
That evening over supper Bill asked Anselma about the boy lifting the
tree to let her escape. Could she by any chance have been mistaken? Could
the tree not have moved in the wind? Anselma looked at her husband coolly
and shook her head.
Bill continued in a rather abashed manner. With just a tinge of a blush,
Bill said he had asked only because it had required the labor of two sturdy
mules and a horse just to haul the offending snag a few feet off the trail.
Anselma smiled, shrugged, stroked her husband reassuringly on the forearm,
and kissed away the small tears of relief that scrolled down his cheeks.
Excerpted from Down to a Soundless Sea by Thomas
SteinbeckCopyright 2002 by Thomas Steinbeck. Excerpted by permission of
Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission
in writing from the publisher.