In 1853, a woman wearing a dress made of cormorant feathers was found on San Nicolas Island.
"Come! What's that,
the flitter-shadow by the scrub pines,
the motion on the overlook?
There, just above those rock shoals
where the breakers crack.
Yes, it's human by the shape,
native by the gait, and
Ahoy! You, on the shore!
Bring her in, boys,
for this island's marked dead.
We'll make our names with this wild man,
be marveled all the way to Sacramento,
have our faces etched in paper
and the Fathers they'll bless us earnest
when we bring this soul to God.
Watch the rocks, now! Steady.
Best let down the sail
and row. And he follows,
clever man, he moves
a dark and fluid mirror to us,
tracking along the shore.
Put in at this sandy inlet,
pull her up the beach, and
leave the traps, you fool!
This is not otter, not seal.
This hunt is won on kindness.
We'll use a blanket trap,
and light-bait, and tinned meat.
But it may not be needed
and no, it's not a man, never could be,
for she comes down the rocky slope
bare foot, bare berasted,
her soles must be thick as tar
as her hair, like a long lace shroud
is, and around her hips
dancing around the muscles
just below her knees, feathers
inky and irredescent, clumped
with twine, woven and how long?
How many wings, backs, bellies?"
No traps to be set. She's standing on the beach
and all her feathers sing like black water.
She spoke an unknown language.
Before the fog glistened in the sun,
when it was just a gray comfort, gilding
leaves rocks bark hide with itself
the cormorants would come. From her shelter
she'd watch them, the too-old, the injured,
ravage her scrap-heap, tearing fish-head and
squirrel-bone away, snapping, scrabbling
ungainly out of their element, and always
alone together. She counted them, named them,
watched them, pleased when they were
re-inducted to the could of darting birds,
graceful again in the water,
mixed and tumbled with every other.
Wading in the shallows, she twitched out her nets
and watched the birds scatter,
wings water feet and sun tumbled shining together.
They named her Juana Maria.