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:. Source: The Smithosian.com1