The Chief stands up at the head of the table
shakes the eagle claws strung round his neck
feels for the bear teeth and quills at his belt
rustles the seal bones wrapped round his wrists
then casts his eyes to his daughter-bride Nashawa
her face is pale like the unsure clouds,
skin sleek and shining like the seal’s,
then he turns to the dark-haired groom by her side:
Akulam, the Thunderbird,
who spreads his Thunderbird claws on her knee.
The guests shrink behind their masks
the singing stops, the children crawl up
drop their puppets lifeless beside them
kneel by the guests, their faces upturned
like eager nestlings impatient to catch
each Seal-clan word pouring out of the Seal Chief’s mouth.
“There was once a young maiden with silky skin
eyes clear as the water, who walked like the waves
slowly, silvery under the sun, until one day
she was caught in a storm and ran from home;
the wind blew hard, it straightened her hair
tugged her away from the sand and the trees
lifted her up into the squalls
threw her into the angry sea
until she was strewn on a shore by the pines.
She ran from the thunder which raged above her
ran into the woods where she dwelt in the shade
hiding from the gales and the sky
away from the sea and the surging waves.
And then one morning the sea-smoke rose
in the shape of a shadow slipping towards her
quietly, caresseing her skin like a soothing balm
and it took the shape of a man beckoning her
with a see-through hand so she glided up to him
sank in his arms, then lay in the leaves with him
on the forest floor.
But the clouds returned and stifled the treetops
sank through the branches down towards them
and claimed her back to the storm she came from.”
Akulam the Thunderbird turns from the Chief
waves a turbulent claw in the air
distracting the guests, his bride and the dancers
and points to shells he’s paid for his wife
piled on the cedar table before them,
the cowries, the cones raked in from the tide,
the clams and little-necks, tellins and tusks
alongside the cakes, the cream, the knives
and the gun,
then spreads his claws back on his seal-bride’s knee.
But the Chief ignores the groom with the groping hand
foresees all the trouble and has to resume.
“But the storm let her go, blew her back to her lover
whose face was changing like the winds,
like the scudding Misk and the vapourous sea
and then he faded, he wavered, he wafted
yet gathered her up and breathed all over her
and lay her down and made love to her.
Their mist-child grew like the storm waves inside her
surging and heaving, unsettled, impatient
while her lover lay like gossamer beside her
listening to the turmoil inside her,
felt the wild kicking inside her belly
with his ghost-like hand she could hardly feel.
And he soothed her and kissed her, spread lichen cloth over her
then faded away when the night came in.
She wept for her lover, searched the woods for him
in the shapes and the shadows which slipped through her hands
until his voice came to her, it seeped through the bark
of the trees all around her, calling, calling,
“I will come back to you, listen, believe,
you will hear me and see me, I will come back.”
The words sunk in the dew, they hung in the trees,
in the haze and the rain, in the wind and the waves.”
A hush brushes over the Potlatch hut
the canoes lined up in the bay have stopped rocking
the eagle perched on the roof has stopped crying
and the door opens, all heads turn
dark eyes staring through slits in their masks
at the usual intruder, the government agent
who lolls against the west wall watching
bleary eyed as the whisky goes down,
jacket a-slant, brass button dangling,
obeying Her Majesty’s rule which he serves when he can.
and Akulam firms his grip on Nashawa’s knee.
But the Chief continues, and the eyes and the masks turn back for more.
“She lifted all the shadows to find him,
prayed for him to come back to her
wandered in and out of the pines to find him
followed the brume which slid through the trees,
tripped over the fallen trunks, crossed over marsh and mere
looking for him in every branch, every leaf
in the dying ferns, in the flowerless moss.
Every morning she walked down to the water
for perhaps he had vanished into the sea
but the sea was vast and the waves always shifting
so perhaps the haze from the ground was his breath
or the dew on her skin his kiss,
or the shadow over the brackish pool his face
the touch of the fern on her arm his hand.
So she lay down on the lichen and pine needles
made her bed in the leaves and indigo.
And there she waited . . .
Four days later she knew it was him,
he came with the scent of the trees towards her
hemlock, cedar, alder and pine
and there he lay with her, hand on her womb.
She gave birth in the woods enveloped in mist
and her husband came every evening to see them,
every morning when the sun was rising
always in the half-light he came
leaving the land of the dead to be with her.
But winter slid in and the berries fell
all he could offer was food from the dead
so she wrapped their child in reeds and damp leaves
cocooned it in her sinking breast
came out of the pines, crept back to the village
hunting for crumbs, for cream and for fish
and stole like a vulture to save her child.
Until they saw her,
ah, that one large swollen red, rough, finger
lodged in her face, in the bulk at her breast:
‘What are you hiding, where have you been?’
a cracked wet voice from the sea and the wind
rattled and twisted round all the house totems
for the village was ripe with rumours and tales
of where she had vanished to.
They weaselled out of doors and windows
fishwives and mothers, grandmothers, witches
red faced and cursing, shaking their rattles
spiders and frogs and beaks and claws –
so eager to see a vixen caught
for only a vixen abandons her village
and sneaks back quietly to steal and pillage.
Then they pulled her cloak off her, shrank back, speechless
at the creature she held in her sunken chest,
they spat on her like the storm clouds breaking
fishy breaths caught in rattling throats,
hurling rebukes in a thunder roll
of long red tongues like the Devil’s Club drupes,
swollen fists punching the sky
as if the sky was to blame for the spectre she held.
No-one ever saw her again
and the stories say that just before dawn
you can hear her ghost husband call in the half light,
in the shadow hours, round the pines and the fern,
her moans are muffled inside the moss.
Others say the trees creek with the memory
sob in the summer and lower their branches
to take up the young woman and her spirit baby
and render them up to the sky.
And there are those who say the ghost husband despaired,
rolled back the sea and walked into the underworld
where winter condemned him to freeze in the ice.
Others say he lies in the earth
rises in mist to search for her,
that still she roams with her spirit child
lifting the shadows searching for him
and they say that the eagle’s cry from the cedar-tops
is really his cry from the depths of the sea.”
The Chief takes his seat, the story now spent.
Oh, see how Nashawa’s skin now glows!
See how it shines! How her eyes have lit up
yet Akulam’s claw still clasps her knee.
It’s time to leave in their wedding canoe
with the Thunderbird beak spread along the prow,
the Thunderbird claws crawling round the hull
black and orange against the sea.
The women follow them, shaking their shells
the oarsmen pound the oars in the hull,
the waves stop, the sun hides in a cloud
as Nashawa and Akulam climb in, take their seats
and the paddles are raised.
Photo:. Source: The Smithosian.com