Ghost Husband

The Chief stands at the head of the table

shaking the eagle claws strung round his neck

the bear teeth and quills fixed on his belt,

rustles the seal bones strapped round his wrists

then casts his eyes to his daughter-bride Nashawa

– her face pale as the clouds, skin sleek as the seal’s –

and the dark-haired groom on her other side, Akulam

with those Thunderbird claws spread over her knee.

 

The guests fall silent behind their masks

the singing stops, the children draw near

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 pale silky skin

as clear as the water, who moved like the waves.

She fled her home, was caught in a storm

strewn on the shore by the edge of the pines.

She ran from the thunder which raged in the sky

from the clouds and the rain;

she ran to the woods where she dwelt in the shade

until one morning when the sea-smoke rose

a shadow came slipping through the trees

in the shape of a man, somehow unsure

yet beckoning her with a see-through hand.

She glided up to him, sank in his arms

lay in the leaves with him on the forest floor.

But the clouds returned and gathered above,

stifled the treetops, sank down towards them

claiming her back to the storm she came from.”

 

Akulam the Thunderbird turns from the Chief

points to shells he’s paid for his bride

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 over his Seal-bride’s knee.

The Chief strokes the air with feathered arms

ignoring the groom with the groping hand.

 

“The face of her lover changed like the winds

like the vapourous sea-smoke blown by the Qualicum,

like the scudding Misk, it faded, it  wavered,

hovering, wafting, reappearing.

But he drew her to him, gathered her up

lay down with her and there she conceived.

 

Their mist-child grew like the storm waves inside her

protesting, unsettled, heaving its heaviness

while her lover lay gossamer-like beside her

listening to the turmoil inside her,

he felt the wild kicking, stroked her sleek skin

with a ghost-like hand she could hardly feel.

But he soothed her and kissed her, stretched lichen over her

and then he expired.

 

She wept for her lover, searched the woods for him

in the shapes and the shadows which slipped through her hands

and then  his voice came to her, 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 falls over the Potlatch hut

the canoes in the bay stop rocking

the eagle perched on the roof stops crying

for the door has opened, all heads turn

dark eyes staring through slits in the 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.

Akulam’s grips Nashawa’s knee,

the Chief lowers his head, waits for the hush,

his feathered crown catching the light from the door,

waits for the eyes and the masks to turn back.

 

“The young man faded into the trees

and 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.

There she waited .  .  .

And 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, his hand on her womb.

 

She gave birth in the woods enveloped in mist

and her ghost husband came every evening to see them,

every morning when the sun was rising.

Always in the half-light he came.

But winter slid in and the berries fell

and 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 trees, 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,

and 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,

so eager to see a vixen caught

for only a vixen abandons her village

and sneaks back quietly to steal and pillage.

They pulled off her cloak, shrank back, speechless

at the creature she held in her sunken chest,

spat on her like the storm clouds breaking

fishy breaths caught in rattling throats.

They hurled their 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,

say 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 beads and 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: Melissa Groo.  Source: The Smithosian.com

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