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Dzelarhons: Mythology of the Northwest Coastby Anne Cameron
When I was eight -or nine - or maybe ten or eleven - I don't remember for sure now, Klopinum would share her stories with me. My mom was working as an aide in the white hospital at the top of the hill where black-haired kids with eyes like sad holes burned in wool blankets stared through windows at the rolling fields their TB lungs would not allow them to run in, or to jump or yell or chase or ride bikes or do any of the things kids were intended by creation to do.
"You be good now," my mom would say and off she'd go, leaving her own kids at home, walking a mile or so to the job that provided the money there was no other way to get, the money that bought the food that kept us healthy. Sometimes, especially when she was on afternoon shift, Id half waken, and she'd be standing by my bed looking down at me, her eyes glistening damply in the one A.M. moontinted darkness. She had a real thing about those forms they sent home from school; she'd always sign, and they'd jab us in the arm with all this stuff she said would keep us from getting sick. Didn't matter if it was smallpox, typhoid, diphtheria, she didn't even look at the form, she signed and we got stuck in the arm. But we didn't get the TB or anything else, except one summer I got undulant fever from cow's milk. She'd tell us, "Stop complaining, the kids where I work would give anything to be able to do what you do." Not much we could say in answer to that, just roll up the sleeve and get jabbed again, and put a good face on it. Life could be worse and for a lot of people it is.
Anyway, she'd go off to work, and Id feed the few scraggly hens I had in a coop under the steps against the front of the house, safe from neighbours' dogs and hungry 'coons. One of my first abortive attempts at capitalism, probably the reason I sympathize with wheat farmers today. Fill their water, gather the occasional egg, take it in the house and wash off the chickenshit, feathers, mud, and who knows what all, clean the sink, wash the dishes, clean the sink again, and the day was mine.
Get the red CCM from where it was leaning against the outside wall, start running with it ' pushing it alongside, then, when everything felt right, jump up on the seat, as close as I could get to the running starts the cowboys took in the Saturday matinees. Even then I wondered how often they fell off before they learned how.
Down the camp road to Fifth Street, then straight down Fifth, all the way to where it turned into Pine. Why two names for one street? Nobody ever explained. To the highway, turn left, then turn right, down, over the tracks to the reserve, past the big building, and you could see the church off to your right, standing in a field of grass, the whitepainted walls and big cross on the black roof sharp in the summer holiday sun. Down the street that ran along the beach; it had no name then, God knows if it has one now.
Dogs, dogs, dogs. Everywhere. With and without puppies tagging along behind. Some friendly, some waiting for the chance to rip your flesh, they'd run and boil around in the soft dusty road, yapping and barking, almost upsetting the bike, until someone would holler, and then the whole mad lot would chase off in search of some other entertainment. Kids yelled, or waved, or grinned, or ignored me. Adults sat on the steps or porches, the men in dark pants and undershirts, the women in cotton dresses, the old women with kerchiefs over their heads, tied at the back of their necks, white hair straying and wisping from under the blue or green cloth. The kids, like me, in old clothes, "play clothes" we called them to distinguish them from "school clothes" which had to be kept clean.
The open doors gaped darkly, even in broad daylight, windows shoved up and held open with a length of kindling stick, no screens in evidence, mosquitoes and flies probably waiting inside, but only the toddlers seemed to have any bites. Nobody ever seemed in a rush, nobody ever seemed to be out of sorts. Oh, once in a while you'd see some guy draped over a fencepost or on his knees by a ditch puking his guts out drunk, and sometimes there'd be a couple of guys sprawled near the steps they hadn't been able to manoeuvre, sleeping it off in the heat, but none of the sober ones seemed to pay attention to it. A lot of the kids had marks like the kind I wore a lot, those hot red blotches where the old man's hand connected with a good one, or those fire red strips where the belt cracked sharply against your skin. But in that town at that time all the kids were marked up like that, it was how they socialized you, making the boys into men and the girls into women, fitting them for the coal mines or the kitchen, the logging slopes or the bedroom.
Where the road, such as it was, ended, the path started. Unless you knew where you were going, you'd think the houses stopped at the place where the road stopped, but two minutes down the path, shoving the CCM through grass and tangleberry and ground blackberry that committed mayhem on your bare ankles, was Klopinum's house. Set all by itself. Small, tidy, if it had ever been painted the salt air and wind had fixed that; the boards were silver gray, grainy where the fine sand had rubbed the soft part and left the harder wood exposed in dry pencil-like strips. Her dog would come down the walk, moving oddly, almost half-curled in a sort of slinky-skulk, and for the first few visits, I was sure the dog was going to bite me. I could see teeth, see its lips wrinkled back in what I was sure was a vicious wolf-like snarl, and then I realized the dog was smiling. I'd never seen a dog smile before in my life' was afraid to mention it in case everyone laughed at me and said I was either making up stories again, or so dumb I didn't know a snarl from a grin. Sort of pale honeybrown splotches on a mostly white body, smiling and whipping its tail in circles. Klopinum insisted it was a border collie, but I never saw one like it before or since, although border collies are known to smile that way.
I suppose that dog had a name, but I can't remember what it was.
For years I didn't even know Klopinum's name; if she'd ever told me, I had forgotten. I just called her "Auntie." If any other Auntie came to visit while I was there, Klopinum would tell her my name and add, "her momma works at our hospital," and the other Auntie would look at me as if I had just been forgiven something. Twenty-five years later, in Alert Bay, on hearing my name, someone, a fisherman who sang country and western, asked "'where you from?", and I said, "Nanaimo." He asked if I was related to the woman with the same name who had worked in the Indian hospital. I said, "She's my mom," and right then and there I had to go to his house, meet his wife, see his kids, hold the baby, and out came the photo album. There was my mom, magically young again, standing by a white painted metal crib, her arm around a boy of five or six, both of them smiling, and another picture, the same boy in pajamas, sitting grinning from ear to ear at a small table, and on the table a stack of presents, a birthday cake, some funny paper hats. And my mom again, laughing, ready to help him blow out his candles. "She was like my own mom when I didn't have one," he said, and his wife told me to stay for supper. Before the meal was over there were brothers and sisters, an uncle and a few aunts, smiling, telling me to please tell my mom thank you for being so nice to Sonny. And when I got home and told her, out came her photo album and there was Sonny with my mom again, and even a picture of him in new clothes, going home to Alert Bay. It never occurred to me as a kid, but I wonder now, if any of that made up to her for the economic desperation that forced her to work such long hard hours, looking after other people's kids while her own ran half wild.
Sometimes Klopinum and I would just walk along the edge of the water on the lip of dampness where the spindrift had dried and crackled under our feet with the stiff brown baked seaweed. Sometimes we followed the path into the bush, stepping from hot bright sunlight to cool shaded dampness, our feet squishing the underlay, sending up scents and smells and tastes it took me years to rediscover.
"Look," she'd say, "yellow vi'lets. Smell," she'd say, "thimbleberry leaves. Here," she'd say, "chew this," and when I did, it tasted like licorice, only sharper, fresher, not as sticky-sweet.
Sometimes we wouldn't talk at all, other times we both yapped and chattered. But the best times were when she told stories.
"Hear that?" she'd ask. "Old Raven sitting up in a snag, minding everyone else's business. Hear her? Bossing and scolding and giving advice nobody wants to hear. That Raven. . . . " And she'd smile, and there would be a story. "Raven is the trickster, she fools and gets fooled, her voice is a sharp stone that breaks the day. And one day, Raven. . . . "
"Sit on this log," she'd say, "and let's watch Snipe working for her dinner. You never see that Snipe wasting her time. But if you watch her long enough you'll see that even though she's working all the time, she's having fun too. Hear her talk talk talkin' to her family? Hear them talk, talk, talkin' right back, everybody out there busy, busy, busy and havin' such a good time. . . ."
"Oh Eagle," she'd shrug, "what's so great about Eagle? Just a big garbage truck is all Eagle is. Just another kind of sea gull except she can't swim like a Gull does. Now, if you want a bird, look at Osprey! She never eats somethin' that's been dead in the sun, never eats a thing she doesn't catch all herself. You don't see Osprey chewin' away on spawn dead salmon. . ."
"Here, you twist the heads off like this, then peel fem. like this, see? I'll show you one more time, and then you can do your own." The prawns, pink with red stripes, still steaming from the boiling sea water, dumped in the colander to drain, dripping onto the bare boards of the porch. We sat on the steps and shelled them, all, ate a few dipped in butter, ate a few more. "All the small ones," she said, "are boys and all the big ones are female. See how they carry their eggs against them, between their legs, cuddled up so's the water won't wash 'em off too soon. The eggs are the best part, but you have to work for them, you have to suck and nibble and make all kinds of noise they wouldn't think polite at the church tea party." And she laughed gently, slurping deliberately loudly. "They all start off the same, they all start off boys, then when they're big enough, they change. Prawn has to be smart to get big. Smart ones get babies. Dumb ones are lunch for the fish. Dogfish are like that too. Start off as males, all the small, fast ones. When they're old enough and big enough, they change. The big females breed with a small male only maybe once every four, five years. Don't know how they manage that. Magic, I guess. The world is full of magic. It's everywhere. Dogfish breeds, but she doesn't have a bunch of eggs at once, not, say, like Frog or Salmon or most other things. Dogfish, her babies come out like blackberries. There's never a bush covered with nothing but ripe ones, you ever notice? Some green, some pink, some red, some maroon, some black. Dogfish, if you catch a female and open 'er up, she has one baby that's all set to be born, you can put it in the water and off it'll go, just a bit of egg sac left, and another almost as big but not quite, it might be able to swim, might not, and one a bit smaller, and smaller yet, right down to where there's just an egg with a little black dot in it. Every coupl'a days Dogfish has a baby. Magic. Lots of magic."
Klopinum wasn't much taller than I was, a round sturdy barrel of a Salish body and I have no idea at all how old she was that first summer. She wore brown lisle stockings and low-heeled shoes, a clean housedress with an apron over top, with pockets full of treasures. Her hair was almost snow white, no yellow streaks like some, and she kept it loosely pinned in a sort of a bun at the base of her neck. It escaped, often, and wisped softly around her head. "Oh, that hair," she'd say, "gettin' as hard to manage as a baby's." Her chubby short-fingered hands would reach back, the hair would tumble loose, briefly, then fingers flashing, she would do magic and the bun would be back, not a hairpin to be seen. Magic, the world is full of magic, it's everywhere. "There, that's better, drive me crazy otherwise. Here, straighten you up, too."
Klopinum had a round, flat face, her eyes almost lost in folds, wrinkles, creases, and her forehead was so prominent her eyes seemed hidden under the shelf of her brow. Her hands were gnarled, the skin wrinkled, and she ought to have been long past the age of running, ought to have been past the age to jump a beach log or clamber up a pile of rocks, but she did all that, and more. Laughing. "People forgot how to live, forgot a whole bunch of stuff, you want a good strong body, you have to teach it what you want it to do, otherwise you wind up livin' in an old wreck of a thing, not able to go anywhere any more. Don't tighten up when you run, you just run loose, and breathe like a dog. Your lungs go all the way down to your bellybutton, so don't breathe with your chest, breathe with your belly, fill up them lungs, use 'em properly. And if you get a bad cold, sniff warm sea water up your nose- and wash all those germs out. It'll hurt, but not as bad as bein' sick hurts."
Everyone was so convinced death was waiting behind every rock, waiting to reach out and grab a kid and break everyone's heart.
My mother with her inoculations and dentists.
Klopinum with her sea water and dried roots.
My grandmother with her North English spring tonic and mustard plasters.
"Eat salmonberries, they're good for you, they're the first berries, they'll clean the winter out of your belly and you won't get sick."
She had made blackberry tarts, I remember that, so it was probably August, and so hot and still the dust hung in the air, the heat waves shimmered above the sea. Klopinurns fingers were stained blue with berry juice and her feet stuck out straight in front of her. We were sitting in the sand, leaning against a bleached log. Her shoes were canvas sneakers, gray, and almost finished.
Most of her stories Id heard four or five or a dozen times and could almost recite word for word with her. "You tell a good story," she told me sometimes, and laughed softly. Sometimes, when the other Aunties came to visit, Klopinum would start a story, then nudge me sharply, and I knew I was expected to continue it for her. It was not expected that I use the very same words she used, but it was expected that whatever words I chose, the rhythm was to be as strong and as regular as the waves or my own breathing, and the heart of the story be unchanged. And when the story was done, nobody clapped, they nodded, and you knew inside yourself if you had done a good job of telling the story.
Most of the time the same basic story got told half a dozen different ways, variations on the same theme, but that August day Klopinum told me a story for the first time and then never told it to me again, although I asked for it often enough. "You'll remember it on your own," she answered. "You heard it when I told you, you know it, you don't need me to tell you that story."
She told me about the Creator. Not a man and not a woman but neither, and both, it doesn't matter. And there is no name other than the Creator, the Voice Which Must Be Obeyed. A good force, a good spirit, a good soul. The Creator. Made everything there is in this world and all other ones, made the birds and fish, the animals, trees, plants, rocks, flowers, and us, made it all, with love, and when everything was made and everything was alive, and the job all done, the Creator smiled. The Creator knew that nobody who lived would ever know everything or have all the answers, but everybody
would always have questions. So the Creator took a little bit of the best of everything, and with it, the Creator made a rich river, and hid that river in everything. It's in me and it's in you and it's in that cedar tree and it's in that rock and it's in every grain of sand on this beach. A river of copper, because copper is sacred, comes in five colours, that's one more than magic. And all the holy people, all the sacred people, all the special people who have gifts are part of this river. The poets and the painters and carvers and singers, the dancers and drummers and storytellers, and everybody who walks and talks and breathes and lives in courage and in faith. And if you have love, and faith, and courage and trust and aren't afraid, you can find that river, and go to it, and drink Truth from it, and find some answers for yourself.
"You ought to write a book," I told her. "You could write a book and people would buy it and read the stories and it would be wonderful. Everybody would know your stories."
"No." Klopinum looked away and for a while didn't look or feel or sound like Klopinum at all, just an old woman with tired eyes. "Not me. Nobody wants those stories." She shrugged, then smiled, finally, and laughed. "I'm just an old klooch," and when I wanted to protest she shook her head. "Who listens to me? Who listens to us? Who listens? Anyway, I can't read and I can't write, and I never went to school and writers go to university."
"You could tell them and get someone else to write them," I insisted, as stubborn as anyone that age is. She just laughed, then reached out with her blackberry stained fingers, and took my hand in hers, and patted it. Patted. Patted. "You think so? Tell you what," she said, "I'll give them stories to you. You want it done, you do it."
When I was twelve I told my mother I was going to be a writer. When I was fifteen, and she was still working long hours for low pay, and there were four kids to feed instead of two, and money was more scarce than ever, my mother managed to save enough to buy me a typewriter. "You can't be a writer without one," she said.
Magic. The world is full of magic. It's everywhere. . .
John Richardson thought he had never been so miserable in his life. The wind howled like a wild animal, a wild animal caged and demanding freedom. The waves were mountainous and capped with angry white froth, the rain petted like sharp needles, and the deck was slippery under his bare feet. Every time he thought he had regained his balance, another wave would crash against the side of the ship and send him staggering all over again. Clouds hid the moon and somewhere in that terrible blackness was the rocky shoreline of what sailors called "The Graveyard of the Pacific." More ships had smashed against those rocks in the few years since the discovery of the coast than anyone liked to remember. Spanish ships first, then British ships, and no survivors to tell the details to the navigators, so each voyage was as dangerous as the very first ones had been.
He hadn't expected it would be like that. But nothing had been as he had expected. He wondered if that meant a person wasn't supposed to expect anything, to just take each day as it came and hope nothing got any worse.
Life wasn't easy for an orphan boy in England. It had been terrible enough after his father left on a ship and didn't come back again. John could barely remember his father, barely remember standing on the dock with his mother, waving while the big wooden ship moved out to sea. His mother hadn't wept, but then, she never had. Even when she was sick and white-faced with pain, she hadn't cried. Sometimes John wanted to cry, but when that happened, he remembered his mother and how brave she had been, and he held back his tears.
And then, one day, she was dead, and the neighbours were making arrangements for the funeral, and looking at him pityingly. He knew there was only one place for an orphan. The workhouse. And John Richardson hadn't wanted to go to the workhouse. He'd heard too much about it, and nothing he had heard had been good. And so he ran from the house, ran from the sight of his mother' with her eyes shut and her hands folded, ran to the docks, knowing only that he did not want things to be the way they were; he wanted something better.
There were hungry days and cold, shivery nights, and he learned quickly to get out of the way of the deeply tanned men who toiled loading and unloading the ships that brought cargo from all over the world. If he wasn't fast enough there would be a sudden kick or a slap on the side of the head to send him sprawling.
Just when he thought he would have to give up and go to the workhouse after all, everything changed. He was still asleep inside an empty barrel, and then suddenly there was a loud thump, a laugh, and his eyes jerked open, he tried to scramble free. But right in front of the barrel, two bare feet, and two strong legs, bare to the knee, and the laugh again. When the legs moved aside, John Richardson crawled out of the old barrel, frightened, hungry and defiant.
The sailor gave him some ship's biscuit and talked about far-off places John had never even heard of before, of sights too wonderful to be imagined, and then John walked with him to the ship, and before he even knew what was happening, he was signed on as cabin boy.
He wasn't sure any more what it was he had expected being cabin boy would mean, but whatever he had expected, nothing had been like that.
He had been so hungry when the sailor gave him the ship's biscuit that it had tasted more delicious than anything he could remember in a long time. And for the first few days, while the ship was still in port and it was still possible for people to sneak away, the food had been quite good. From the day they put out to sea, the food had got worse and worse until it was so bad only the sharp pangs of desperate hunger could force him to swallow it. There were bugs in all of it. In the flour, in the salted meat, in the sacks of dried beans, little black bugs and little white worms. And they got cooked up with everything else and, yes, eaten, because there was no time to pick them out, there were too many to pick out, and it was eat or starve, eat or die. And so John ate, gagging sometimes, but he ate.
He ate and he worked harder than he thought it was possible for a person to work and still stay alive.
He worked until he ached from head to foot and then, when he fell onto his hard pile of rags in a corner, he slept, until someone remembered there was something they wanted him to do, and kicked him awake, to go back to work again. If he didn't move quickly enough, or do the job well enough, he was slapped, kicked, even beaten, and made to do the job over again, quicker, better.
It wasn't what he had expected at all. They hadn't gone to the southern seas where the sun was warm and the trees full of brightly coloured birds. They hadn't gone where the scent of spice hung heavy in the air and the water was warm and clear under a turquoise sky. Nothing he had been told would happen had happened, and nobody had told him anything at all about this harsh coast, these threatening rocks, and the kind of storms that could toss a deck around so wildly all you wanted to do was get to the rail, hang on with both hands, and let the rotten food that had been supper come flying back up and out of you again.
He knew he had never been so miserable in all his life.
Everyone in the village was worried about Osprey Woman. Ever since her son had gone out in his dugout and not come back, Osprey Woman had been half mad with grief. Every morning she was awake and on the beach as the first light of the sun came up out of the sea. Standing in the cold water, she stretched her arms toward the huge red ball and sent her voice to the listening ear of the Creator. While the sleepies and dozies were still curled up in their beds, Osprey Woman was praying, certain her voice would be heard, for wasn't she the only one up so early, wasn't hers the only voice asking for help, and didn't the Creator always listen to prayers that came from the heart.
After her prayers were finished, she would walk along the beach, looking for her son. Months had passed since he had set out in his small dugout to gather gulls' eggs, and though they had found his cedar canoe smashed and broken on the rocks, they had never found his body. Until she saw with her own eyes that her son was dead, Osprey Woman believed him alive.
And so, every morning, she prayed for the sea to give up the great treasure it had taken from her. Every morning she prayed that her son be given back to her.
He had been soft and loving, he was laughter and joy, he was the light in her eyes and the song on her lips, and the ear of the Creator was open, she would surely be heard.
Osprey Woman finished her prayer, then bathed in the cold water, and when all her body glowed red with the cold, she pulled her clean tunic over her head and started her regular morning check of the shore. The raging storm that had held the coast in its grip for three days and nights had washed piles of sea weed onto the sand, huge logs, even trees, blown over by the wind, their roots like arms, hands, fingers washed clean by the rain and sea. Sometimes there were strange things for which Osprey Woman had no words or names, things washed from lands far across the heaving waters, lands the Pullers had even visited in the huge cedar dugouts, lands Osprey Woman would have liked to have seen for herself, but she had not been born to be a Puller, no matter how hard she had exercised, no matter how faithfully she had practiced, her arms and shoulders were just not big enough or strong enough to pull the paddle through the water well enough, or for a long enough time. And so she had been passed over and had to stay at home while others went out to visit the lands that formed the rim of the world. Osprey Woman stayed home, dreamed her dreams, wove her blankets, baskets, and tunics, and waited eagerly for the return of the travellers and the wonderful stories they brought home with them.
She had thought her son would be a Puller. He had the strong arms and shoulders that would be required, he could pull his paddle well, for long hours, without tiring, and he loved the stories as much as she did. And if the sea ever gave him back to her, he might still qualify.
And then she saw him. She wasn't surprised, she had expected all along that she would find him. She wasn't frightened, he was her son, and she had never had anything to fear from her son. She was just very relieved, and very happy.
She knelt, and brushed the bull kelp from his face, the sand from his skin, and she sighed with relief when she saw the steady rise and fall of his shoulders. He was breathing. Her son was not dead.
But he was changed. Anyone who didn't know might even think this was a different boy all together. But Osprey Woman knew this was her son. She knew because she had faith. She knew because she had been praying at first and last light ever since he had failed to return. She had prayed that the sea give back her son, and so of course, this was her son, the sea had given him back. And if he was changed, what else could you expect after so long in the Kingdom Beneath The Waves.
His skin was much paler, but of course there is no sunlight in the kingdom beneath the sea. His hair was bleached from black to a light brown, but everyone knew salt water could do that to a person's hair. Everything about him was lighter, and smaller, but all you had to do was remember how the children looked in the summer time when they played in the waves all day and the skin on their hands and feet wrinkled and puckered, their palms and the soles of their feet startlingly pale against the deep tan of their bodies.
She lifted her son with only slight difficulty, and started walking back to the village, singing a song of thanks, praising the Creator, telling all the villagers her prayers had been answered and the sea had given back her son.
The villagers could hardly believe what they saw with their own eyes. Osprey Woman, smiling and happy, moving toward her house with a young boy in her arms. They hurried to help her, to offer her their congratulations, to join her in praising the Creator who had caused the sea to give back her son.
But when they saw the boy, they were stricken with doubt. The boy they remembered was much bigger, much stronger, older and darker, with hair like the raven's wing and deep rich brown skin. This boy didn't look like that at all, and when he opened his eyes, the people gasped, for his eyes were not quite as blue as the sky, not quite as gray as the sea.
And his clothes, what was left of them, in no way at all resembled the clothing of the people. In fact, in many ways, the shreds of cloth reminded them of the clothes worn by the Strangers, except the Strangers' clothes were much more beautiful and impressive. This boy was nearly naked. It was all a great puzzle to the people.
Almost as great a puzzle as the Strangers. For more generations than anyone except the Memoriz-ers could remember, there had been only the people on the island. Sometimes the Pullers headed off across the water to visit the countries weeks and even months away, but the people who lived in those countries looked very much like the people of the island. Black hair, black eyes, brown skin, bearing witness to the common maternity of all people, proving they were all the children of Copper Woman, all cousins, if not brothers and sisters. And then the Strangers came, looking nothing at all like any of the people, some of them with hair like the sun, some with hair like dry grass, some with hair the colour of sand, and eyes of all shades of blue, gray, green, brown and black. And now this boy, with strange coloured eyes and pale skin, whose shreds of clothing were very faintly reminiscent of the elegant uniforms of the People Who Live On The Great Boats. But all of those people were men, with hairy bodies and faces, who carried weapons and were quick to use them, and this w as certainly no man, this was most certainly a boy, and Osprey Woman said it was her son. And who would know better than a mother whether or not a child was hers? And so they put away their doubts, and accepted what Osprey Woman told them. Her son had been taken by the seas, had spent long weeks in the Undersea Kingdom, and had been returned to her, bleached and altered, because the Creator had heard her prayers and had rewarded her faith.
John Richardson stirred weakly, his body protesting, his muscles aching, his head pounding. He remembered the storm, he remembered leaning over the side of the ship, sick and dizzy. He remembered the huge wall of gray water that slammed against the side of the ship and pulled his hands loose, sweeping him overboard. He remembered struggling frantically, his calls for help lost in the howling of the wind, and then he remembered only confused images, a large floating log, bare branches he could grab, and the steady pounding of angry water against his body.
He opened his eyes. A woman was smiling down on him, her hand soft against his cheek. He tried to speak, but his voice was caught in his throat, and then the woman was holding a wooden bowl of something hot against his lips. He drank and the warmth filled his belly, his eyes fluttered, and he went back to sleep.
Everyone had heard the sound the boy had made, and if any of them had any lingering doubt that this was Osprey Woman' s son, that doubt evaporated. The boy had made a sound exactly like the call of a gull. What other sound would you expect from a boy who had spent so long in the Undersea Kingdom?
The next time John Richardson wakened, he was lying naked in a bed of otter skins. He was warm, he was comfortable, and as soon as his eyes opened, the smiling woman lifted his head and began to spoon warm soup into his mouth. He ate eagerly, smiling at the woman, who talked softly to him in a language he didn't understand, a language unlike anything he had ever heard, a language full of little clicks and sounds he knew he would have trouble learning to make. When he spoke to her in his own language she just stared at him, then a look of puzzlement and pity crossed her face, tears came to her eyes and she looked so forlorn he reached out his hand and patted her face reassuringly. The sadness vanished from her kind face, she smiled and then he was being held close, the way his mother had held him when he was little, and he was rocked and cradled until his eyes closed, and he slept again.
Within a few days, John Richardson was able to walk without needing to hold onto the strong arm of his new mother. Everywhere he went, people smiled at him and offered him food. Children ran up to him, staring openly, and when he spoke to them, their eyes grew wide, but not fearful. The Carvers showed him their work, the Spinners and Weavers smiled and invited him to try to duplicate their expert movements. The Pullers let him hold a paddle, and when he didn't know how to hold it or how to move it, they looked sad, spoke to him gently, corrected his grip and demonstrated again and again how to move his arms and shoulders.
He learned the words for food and drink, he learned the words for fire and wood, he learned the words for bowl and spoon, for paddle and dugout, for warm and cold, and he learned the word for mother.
The first time he called Osprey Woman his mother, she wept with happiness and held him close, stroking his face, smoothing his hair and smiling through her tears. And when she went to the shore to greet the new day and sing her thanks to the Creator, he went with her, stood in the water with her, and copied the movements she made with her hands and arms.
All the people watched, and were pleased. Every day there was proof that Osprey Woman had been right from the beginning; this was indeed her son.
His sojourn in the Undersea Kingdom had done more than shrink him, done more than alter him physically. Much of what he had known before the accident had been washed from his memory, but that was only to be expected, everyone knew when a person went from one reality to another, everything, including the person, changed.
One day, John Richardson learned the word "Ta-Naz," the word for "boy." He liked the sound. It jumped from his tongue like a small frog jumping from a rock, it flew through the air like a hummingbird. It would, he decided, make a fine new name for his new life. He began calling himself Ta-Naz, which was not really a name, but it became one when he took it for his own. Soon everyone called him Ta-Naz, and he almost forgot he had once had another name, another mother, another life, in another land and culture.
He had never been so happy. Every day his life was more wonderful than it had been the day before. And every morning he went with his mother to thank the Creator for bringing him from death to a full, rich life.
Ta-Naz knew he would never be able to go after the huge whales, harpoon ready, singing the song of the whaler. He knew he would never qualify to be a Puller and to travel to distant lands; his skill with a dugout was simply not good enough. Already, boys much younger than he could paddle more smoothly for longer periods of time. But Ta-Naz wasn't jealous; there were so many other things he could do, so many other things he could become, things he could enjoy.
He enjoyed going out in the small cedar dugout to catch cod and salmon. He enjoyed digging for clams, or picking oysters and mussels from the rocks. He enjoyed diving for sea urchins, or going out to the wiers to harvest fish and crabs. He enjoyed helping harvest and dry the nutritious sea weed, going into the woods searching for edible roots and tubers. He enjoyed picking salmonberries in the spring time and huckleberries and blackberries in the summer time. Every day there was something to do, food to gather and preserve, games to play, things to learn, and all the adults seemed to enjoy teaching him whatever he needed to learn.
Ta-Naz especially enjoyed sitting with a carved wooden comb, carefully combing the fur of the small white dogs that lived in the houses with the people. The dogs were spoiled, pampered, and carefully tended, their long slinky fur treasured. The Spinners would carefully save the fur Ta-Naz removed from the comb, then, expertly and patiently, they would spin it into fibre for the Weavers to work into their capes and blankets. The little white dogs stood patiently, tails wagging, while the boy gently and carefully combed their fur, saving the strands of hair, laying them in a clean basket, and Ta-Naz found the work calming and pleasant. It gave him a chance to think of all the new words and skills he was learning, and, increasingly, as he combed, he sang songs of his own composition, songs in his new language.
Osprey Woman listened to the happy sound of her son singing, and knew it didn't matter to her that he would never become a Puller, never travel as she had so often longed to do. Ta-Naz had already travelled further than most people, most Pullers, ever get a chance to travel. Ta-Naz had travelled to the Undersea Kingdom, and come back to her. He had travelled to death and come back to life, and that was voyage enough for anybody.
The villagers, listening to the sound of Ta-Naz singing, smiled to themselves. Every day the boy learned more of what he had forgotten in the Undersea Kingdom. His pronunciation improved, and he had almost lost the strange accent he had once had when he tried to speak the language he had forgotten. Everyone was very glad Ta-Naz had come back to live with them. He was growing stronger every day, and if his skill with a dugout was less than it ought to have been, perhaps that only meant that he was supposed to spend most of his life on the land, now that he had so completely explored the sea. His skin was darker than it had been, but still much lighter than anybody else's, and the people realized that for the rest of his life he would carry this mark of the time he had spent lost in the water.
And then, several years after Ta-Naz had returned from the Undersea Kingdom, the huge wooden boat of the Strangers appeared on the horizon. The people went down to the beach to stare in wonder at the tall masts, the furled sails. When they saw the strange dugout coming toward them, they waved welcome, and threw the soft down from the breast of waterfowl on the waves to welcome the Strangers.
Nobody noticed Ta-Naz move away from the welcoming throng. Nobody noticed him as he went to the house he and his mother shared with three other families. They were all too busy welcoming the strangers.
The Strangers had beads, blankets, knives, and metal kettles they wanted to trade for seal and otter skins. The Strangers needed fresh water and wanted permission to cut tall trees to make new masts for their ship. The people made presents of fresh and' smoked fish, of oysters, clams, and venison.
And Ta-Naz stayed away from everything that was happening. His mother asked him what was wrong, and he just shook his head and walked away, and those who saw it began to wonder.
And then, one day, unexpectedly, Ta-Naz was seen by one of the Strangers. The man pointed, his face registering shock, and from his mouth came a loud sound that made Ta-Naz jump with fear and race for the woods. The Stranger whirled and ran to where the officers were seated on the beach, supervising the loading of supplies. When the Stranger blurted out what he had seen, there was great excitement, and then several Strangers ran for the bush, chasing after Ta-Naz.
It wasn't easy to understand what it was that had the Strangers so excited. But, finally, several of the men went into the bush and came back hours later, with Ta-Naz. The boy stood defiantly, glaring angrily at the Strangers, who pointed excitedly at him, and talked eagerly among themselves.
"That boy," the chief of the Strangers pointed at Ta-Naz, "That boy is my cabin boy, John Richardson. You must return him to me."
"That," Osprey Woman said quietly, "is not true. He is my son."
"He is my cabin boy!" the captain argued.
"No," Osprey Woman said firmly.
"If you don't return my cabin boy to me," the officer threatened angrily, "I will use the big guns on my ship to blow this village to pieces."
The warriors stirred uneasily. They had given nothing but friendship to the Strangers, and now they were being threatened. They moved in a semi-circle, their weapons ready. The Strangers looked at the warriors and glanced uneasily at their angry captain. The big guns were out in the bay, on the ship, and if the warriors got angry, few, if any, of the Strangers would make it back to the ship alive.
"Calm yourself," one of the sub-chiefs said firmly. "We will go to the Queen Mother, and ask her what to do about this."
Ta-Naz had seen the Queen Mother many times. He had seen her walking with her daughters, talking to the people, asking them what they felt was needed, or wanted, to improve life for all. He had seen her laughing with her grandchildren, joining them in their games and their play. He had seen her walking with her son, the Chief, instructing him in his duties, listening to his thoughts and ideas, his plans and his hopes.
He had never before seen her in the full official regalia of the Queen Mother.
The Queen Mother stood quietly, her gentle black eyes watching closely the faces and reactions of those involved in the disagreement.
"This boy," the Captain of the Strangers said firmly, "is my cabin boy. His name is John Richardson. I demand you return him to me."
"Everyone knows," Osprey Woman said equally firmly, "Ta-Naz is my son. He was taken by the sea, he journeyed to the Kingdom Beneath The Sea, and the Creator sent him back to me."
"Ta-Naz," the Queen Mother demanded. "Do you understand what the Stranger is saying?"
"Yes Queen Mother," Ta-Naz answered honestly. "He is the captain of the ship. He is the Chief of those Strangers."
"And you understand his speech?"
"Yes, Queen Mother."
"And do you wish to go with him?"
"No, Queen Mother," Ta-Naz said quietly.
"Are you certain?" The Queen Mother looked deeply into his eyes, her face serious. "This decision will affect you for the rest of your life."
"Queen Mother," Ta-Naz said, tears filling his eyes. "I was hungry, I lived less pleasantly than our dogs do. I will not go back. I will not be a slave, and a cabin boy is a slave. I would rather," he said quietly, "return to the Undersea Kingdom, and if I am forced to go back to the Strangers and their ship, I will jump from the deck and sink like a stone."
The Queen Mother looked at him and nodded gently.
"You are to translate my words for the Chief of the Strangers," the Queen Mother commanded. Ta-Naz nodded, then moved to stand near his mother, Osprey Woman, looking across a space of floor to the Captain.
"Tell the Chief of the Strangers your name," the Queen Mother said.
"My name is Ta-Naz," he said.
"Your name is John Richardson!" the Captain thundered.
"My name," he repeated, "is Ta-Naz."
"Who is your mother?" the Queen Mother demanded.
"Osprey Woman is my mother," Ta-Naz answered, and smiled up at the woman who had saved his life.
"Your mother is dead!" the Captain argued. "You are my cabin boy."
"No, Queen Mother," Osprey Woman laughed. "I am not dead."
"And who is that boy standing beside you?"
"He is my son," Osprey Woman answered.
"Ta-Naz." The Queen Mother's smile faded. "Who is your mother?"
"Osprey Woman is my mother," Ta-Naz repeated. I am her son."
The Queen Mother looked at Ta-Naz, then at Osprey Woman, and finally at the Strangers and their Captain.
"Tell the Chief of the Strangers," she said quietly, "that he must not threaten me, my son, this village, or any of the people who live here. Tell him if he threatens us, or makes a move against us, we will send Pullers to all our friends in the villages of this coast. We will send Pullers to our friends in the villages of the countries on the other side of the water. We will meet his force with an army so big he will not be able to count the numbers moving against him."
The Captain listened to what Ta-Naz translated, then flicked his eyes at his crewmen. They were outnumbered, and the young Chief stood with his war club in his hands, ready to do whatever his mother told him. The Captain dropped his eyes, and nodded briefly.
"Osprey Woman says this is her son. How could a mother make a mistake about something as important as that? A mother gives life to a child, and we are all convinced Osprey Woman did, in fact, give life back to Ta-Naz." And the Queen Mother smiled at the woman. "Ta--Naz says Osprey Woman is his mother. A child knows who it is who cares for him when he is ill, feeds him, clothes him, and loves him. A child knows his mother. You say this boy is yours, and the boy says no. How could a woman of this village have a Stranger for a son? How could a Stranger have a woman of this village for a mother?"
The Captain stared at the Queen Mother, and his face told her he knew and understand her decision.
"If one of our dogs," she laughed, "had her puppy in my bed, that would not make that puppy a member of the Royal Family. But if my grandson were born on your boat, he would still be my grandson." The Captain nodded, and tried to hide his anger. "Ta-Naz," the Queen Mother said firmly, "is the son of Osprey Woman. He is one of us, and we will fight, if need be, to protect him and keep him with us." And the Queen Mother walked away with her daughters.
Ta-Naz stood in the chill water of the sea with Osprey Woman standing beside him, and as the sun rose for the start of a new day, they sent their prayers of thanks to the listening ear of the Creator. And as his voice rose to the skies, Ta-Naz knew he had never been happier, never felt more blessed, and he promised the Creator that he would spend his life well, and never forget to express his gratitude to his people, to his mother, Osprey Woman, and to that one who is in charge of all the affairs of the world.
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