Ghost Husband

fog_byJohnWestrock

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: Melissa Groo.  Source: The Smithosian.com

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