Three Rivers, CA
2021, Junior, Creative Writing
My hand skims the surface, sending out ripples into the water. Cold, completely clear, and so pure it could be the very essence of the world. I can see through it to the very bottom where gold shadows dance around the pebbles and fish.
“Hey! I’m going to get you back for that, Chenoa!” Kosumi’s voice floats through the wind to me. I can’t stop the smile spreading across my face as I dive into the water. It’s a shock at first—bone-chilling and electrifying—but it spreads energy through me that allows me to swim away from my twin brother swearing to get revenge.
And if my ancestors could swim in the frigid ice melt multiple times a day in the winter, surely I can tolerate the water on a spring (almost summer) morning, I think.
“Look! A stump!” He stops chasing me to clamber on top of a tall, ancient-looking stump protruding from the lake. I circle around him, and then climb up next to him. One side is a lot taller than the other, and it’s not the most comfortable seat, but I sit on the lower side, anyway. “Just like Eagle and Crow!”
Mom comes gliding through the water towards us, just catching his words. “You remember?”
“Of course we remember,” I answer for both of us.
“Yeah,” Kosumi adds. “Once, a long, long time ago, a great flood covered the Earth. Everything was covered in water except for one lone stump. Tro’-khud, or Eagle, and Ahl-wut, or Crow, flew out of the sky one day and roosted on the stump. There were many little fish in the water below, and they amused themselves by seeing who could catch the most fish. Each day, however, they would fly as far as they could looking for land. They never found any, but one morning to their surprise, Choo-koo-ko, the smallest type of duck, came to the bottom of the stump. When Duck dove below the surface to hunt, he came up with mud in his bill. Eagle and Crow started to come up with an idea.”
He stops to take a breath, and I pick up the story that we have heard from my grandmother many times.
“Eagle and Crow began catching extra fish, and they would put them on the edge of the stump when Duck came up with mud in his bill. Eventually, Duck learned that the fish were meant for him in exchange for the mud. So, every time Duck came up from diving, Eagle and Crow would brush the mud from his bill and body with their wings. Eagle dumped his share on one side of the stump, and Crow dumped his on the other, so that they shared the mud equally. Duck kept diving and getting fed, and little by little the water on the sides of the stump grew shallower and shallower as the mud grew higher. They took turns getting the mud from Duck, and Eagle often soared around checking the progress of the world that they were creating. By this time, the piles of mud had grown as high as mountains, but Eagle was angry to see that while he had been away, Crow’s mountains had grown much taller than his. He now started catching twice as many fish for Duck as Crow, and gradually Eagle’s half of the world became taller than Crow’s.”
“There may have been more floods and storms, but the waters eventually receded for good, and Eagle’s half of the world became the mighty Sierra Mountains. Crow’s half became Coast Ranges, and the land in between became the Great Valley, with Tulare Lake and Buena Vista Lake the remnants of the great flood. These lakes were where we were created by Eagle and Coyote, and they have always been a part of our spirits.”
I reach down and scoop up another handful of water as I remember what I have heard from my elders. They have said that Tulare Lake was once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi River, stretching over 690 square miles in wet years. They have also said that once there were great people who lived around Tulare Lake and the mountains that Eagle had created. Those people called themselves the Yokuts, and they thrived peacefully for many years off of the acorns and tule reeds from the lake. They thrived until the Europeans came, hunting them, starving them, spreading diseases, and eventually taking their land until they were moved to the most unwanted parcel left. The Yokuts were my ancestors, and their blood runs through me.
I am drawn out of my thoughts when Kosumi asks Mom another question: “Speaking of spirits, there were such things as water baby spirits, right?”
“I don’t know,” she answers. “There may have been and there might still be, but I have never seen one. The legend goes that water babies, whose native name is Paakniwat, are mysterious and dangerous spirits that inhabit bodies of water such as lakes, ponds, and springs. Supposedly they take the form of beautiful human infants with fishtails, and are guardians of the waters they reside in. Some stories that I have heard say that the cry of the water baby is an omen of death, but others believe that picking up or messing with Paakniwat results in a catastrophe.”
“People have messed with our lakes though! Surely the water babies will get angry at them?”
Sometimes I think that Kosumi and I were supposed to be one person, but we got split in half, and each of us have half of the characteristics that we were supposed to. Kosumi cannot go five minutes without asking a question, yet I am happy to sit and listen to people talk for a very long time. Mom has been tired of Kosumi’s constant questioning for years now, but I think she is just thankful that I am not also that way.
“Yes, we natives took care of our lakes and rivers. We treated them like they were a part of us, because they really are. Water is the one thing that everyone needs, but when the others came, they took it away from us. We had a giant lake, but now it doesn’t exist because they took the water for themselves. We are all water babies, Kosumi, for we all come from the water. As for the spirits that you speak of, I feel that they have been silent for a long time, but a catastrophe does lie ahead.”
“Why do you think that?”
“The ground is parched. It is dusty, and we have been in drought. Our water is being used to grow food that is sent to the other side of the world, when there is hardly enough here. When your grandparents first came to the reservation, everyone was below the poverty level, with some even living in chicken coops. The average education was third grade, but thankfully it has risen since then to twelfth grade and even college level for some. This was our land that we shared with the rest of the animals and spirits, but now the water is becoming more and more scarce, and the summers are getting hotter and hotter.”
The conversation moves on, and as usual, Kosumi doesn’t pay that much attention to the actual answers of his questions. He goes on to brag that he is like Eagle from the creation story because he is on the higher side of the stump, but I cannot think right for the rest of the day.
As I look around the lake where we are visiting, I see a ring several hundred feet up the hill. Inside the ring is mostly dirt with some grass, but outside the ring is where the shrubs and trees start growing.
“That’s the fill line,” Mom informs me. “The water is supposed to get up to that line every year, and that is when the lake is declared full. This time of year, it should be filling up soon, but it’s not even halfway full, as you can see.”
I wrap my arms around my knees as I sit in silence and wonder if there is a water baby in this lake. I know this lake used to be a river that flowed freely into Tulare Lake until it was dammed up, and so I wonder if the water baby would be angry that we have messed with it.
Before I know it, our day is over at the lake and I am sitting in the old van that my family recently found enough money to buy. Kosumi chatters to me the whole way home about how awesome it was to visit the lake, especially since we’ve never really been on a trip before. When we finally pull into the dirt driveway of the house we share with my best friend’s family, I am exhausted.
The dirt beneath my feet sends clouds of dust into the air, covering my legs in what feels like little grains of powdered sugar. It has rained a couple of times this year, but Mom says that we are way behind average and the season is almost over.
“Please bring rain,” I whisper to the ground when no one else is listening. “We’re water babies, too.”
But that night as I fall asleep, Mom’s voice rings in my ears. Picking up or messing with a water baby can result in a catastrophe. The cry of the water baby is said to be an omen of death or a warning of something bad to come. Yes, we have messed with the lakes and bodies of water, damming them up and using them to grow crops that are sent to the other side of the world. We’re in a drought now and we need water.
Surely there cannot be a catastrophe coming? Unless the catastrophe is already beginning… I close my eyes and try to stop thinking.
I am not sure if I’m asleep or not, but from far off I hear a deep wailing that spreads across the entire valley, echoing through the dried-up puddles of water, through the orchards, and blanketing everything in a warning. A single shiver runs down my spine.
I myself am not indigenous, but I have always been interested and fascinated with the native people of North America and their connection to the Earth. Before writing Water Babies, I did not know that much about the natives in my area, so I got to learn a lot. Everything from their culture and customs to their creation story and the current status of the Yokut tribes was new to me, and I found myself gaining respect for them. It was also surprising to learn about Tulare Lake, which I had heard about before but never known much about. Still, it is hard for me to fathom such a large body of water in the central valley of California where I live that so suddenly ceased to exist. I tried to incorporate pieces from my own life into the story, including the fact that my area of California is right now experiencing a shortfall of water this year. Hopefully, though, the story also brings hope, because just like how Chenoa’s tribe bounced back from living in chicken coops to getting college educations, we can restore the water that runs through the veins of everyone. And everyone—young and old—can play a vital part.