Totem

Cedric wasn’t drunk.  Spirits from the spirits, he told himself.  That was a sober man’s thought, wasn’t it?  The neck of the bottle was in his mouth.  A way to communicate with those gone.  More gone than him.  To speak with raven, and eagle, and with luck even spirit bear.  Cedric was drifting.  The rowboat slunk on the rising tide towards what had been his home.  He made no effort.  Towards more spirits.  He lay back, his head against the motor casing, the smell of the oil mixed in as he took another drink, until the stars joined in lines, a message he could not read.

A white man would have said, Cedric was very drunk.

The boat drifted towards the mountain under which he had lived.  He was of the people living at the rivermouth; at least, that was what his tribal name meant.  There was no name for the people taken from the rivermouth.  The reflection of the mountain above the fjord stayed just in front of the prow, so that even as the boat moved, the mountain in the water remained the same distance away, the boat never catching up to it.  His cousins were of the people of the mountain.

Cedric had set off for where he had been born, knowing when he got in his rowboat that one way or another death was all he had left, his only way to live.  But when he set off he saw only the small cabin surrounded by the great trees of the rain forest, trees shrouded in the green of moss and vine, walking on land that was a cushion of green as well.  He had forgotten what lay between, the tide flowed both directions and carried him back past later layers that shrouded him until despite his promise he pulled out of his pack the first of the bottles, and let the tide fulfill his intent if it wished by carrying him along while he drank and drifted.  He had thought to find spirit bear and let this part of him die, or let all of him die as the spirits wished, but each mile was a memory set not deep enough to depart, and each memory was an affront, and as the events of the memories led him to drink, so did the memories themselves.  The estuary into the river was only one course, that was all that might save him now, that and the tide that moved him past the memories.

He passed by barren land where stumps were all that was left of the great forest, and he passed by the tribe’s cemetery where the wake of factory ships had washed over and taken away the gifts left to help the dead in the next life, black iron pans and big aluminum pots and knives and forks and mattress springs and remnants of old jeans and plaid shirts and faded ragtop dolls.  He passed by the shack they had moved to after he was born, the place he lived in until he was ten, when he and all the other ten year old crop were harvested by the provincial government and taken to a school where they could only speak English, where his language was forbidden, and his customs and his songs.  In front of the cemetery was another stump, perfectly round, with a trace of carving on its streaked gray base. For these memories, there weren’t enough bottles, not then, not ever.

 

The white man called this British Columbia, but it was twelve thousand years before that name that the first of the people crossed Beringia, the frozen connection between Alaska and Russia.   In school Cedric wondered, if they did not give names to places, would they have stayed connected?  But no, the people would have been different.  Names identify, and distinction separates.  Only a thousand years before the crossing the great glaciers covered the land two miles high, but they receded, pausing long enough to create the evanescent bridge over which a people crossed.  They say after the glaciers were gone, the land, compressed by the great weight above, rose several feet, called glacial bounce.

It might be the longest continually inhabited site in the world.  For five thousand years or so the people managed to live off the passing game and fish.  Cedric once tried to imagine the abundance of the waters in the absence of the great fishing ships.  They learned to move stones in the streams and create pens where they gathered fish.  They learned to preserve the fish as well as farm them.  They created herds.  They created abundance.  And with that abundance they flourished, the population grew and remained large for thousands more years.  Stable, and larger than now.  Much larger than now.

Abundance allows art, and part of the people’s art was the totem, stacked stories of ancestry and belief.  They built totems in many places, including a great totem of the people to guard the cemetery, to remind the living of the dead and guide the dead beyond the living.  Cedric’s branch of the people was known as the Haisla.

 

A fish splashed in front of Cedric.  The salmon were spawning, driven to return to the rivers and streams down to the smallest waterbed where thousands cramped together, to drop nixtin, their seed, to give birth and die.  They jumped full out of the water, a silvery shimmer gone before it was seen, a cuwit, chinook, he thought, for he had all the memories of this place, the cuwit and the ca’wit, king salmon, the cuxnit, coho and the biqa’t, sockeye.  They had lived in the great water and were returning home to give birth and to die.  A part of Cedric, far from the surface, smiled.  He let his boat drift to shore, to the first place of his dead.

When Cedric was young, his people were buried on this bluff overlooking the bay near C’imoc’a, their village.  The cemetery sits under great spruces and cedars and a few Douglas fir, the ground so covered with mosses it is a green carpet that welds with the green-coated tree trunks and limbs of the great trees.  It is not crowded with the dead, just filled with their presence, for they were the land and the land was them.  There are worse places to sleep.

Alcan, the Aluminum Company of Canada, built an eighteen-mile pipe through mountains to reverse the flow of the Frasier River, in order to create a remote hydroelectric plant to power their plants and other industry.  The government subsidized the construction of the power plant.  A town was built, a uniform dreary company town to house 25,000 who would work in the smelter and the cannery and the pulp mill and the loggery.  Huge ships entered the bay, and as they broke free of its boundaries they revved up their engines and sped off.  Had they looked behind, they would have seen the waves from their wake crash over the bluff and erode the cemetery of Cedric’s people.

One of Cedric’s friends had a job with one of the canneries.  When the large fishing boats came in to disgorge their catch, they often overfished.  So Cedric’s friend’s job was to stand in the front of the boat and shovel by the ton silvery salmon into the water.  The dead fish lined up for miles along the waterway.  Herring boats stalled among them.  Their stink ran from the water along the shore and inland, washing over the people who saw their land taken by loggers and their seas despoiled by indifferent carnage and the mandates of the quarterly income statement.  Washing over the dead.

Cedric walked toward his mother’s grave.  He walked past the headstones that had been washed to and fro, the demarcated sites obliterated, the offerings left on the site to ease their dead’s way to the next world scattered by the waves, the careful flowers and decorations and carvings over the graves washed away, the remains covered green by the moss and algae residue of the wake.  You cannot wake the dead, but you can disturb their sleep.

He walked past a carving of a kawadi, killer whale, with its large fin and smile covered by green, the wood pitted and streaked with indentation, but this was so, it was the way it was meant to be, to make carvings for the dead and their spirits and always the land, and let them return to the land.  He brushed near a last cooking pot burnished brown, hanging from a nail in a tree.  A rusted bedspring had fallen in front of the path, and as he moved around it he stepped over a carving of q’wayac’k, a wolf still guarding a site long vanished.  Plastic flowers were scattered in places, concentrated over a few sites that had somehow survived the successive beatings.

He walked past his brother Raymond’s site, age three, and all the other stones that ended in nineteen forty seven, and before them the cluster of nineteen nineteen, when a great sickness took them and the white man also.  His father was not here, nor would he be.  He came to his mother’s site, died nineteen eighty.  He stood in front of the headstone.  On it were words given to them by the Christians who helped them into the graves, ‘not dead but gone before.’  He heard her sing, but he did not know the words, they had been pummeled onto the concrete schoolyard.

He left the cemetery and walked past a flat circle of gray wood, another stump left by white man, this one the remains of the great totem of the people that stood by the dead.  Cedric had heard stories of its carvings.  Its top was ‘akwat’da, eagle with two glass oblong eyes so that in the middle of its face the trees were reflected, and the sky.  Under eagle were t’simins, black bears, Tsooda and his brother Asoalget.  Below, spirits and men watched.  At the bottom birds caught salmon and za’xquin, houlikans, swam in bunches, a fish so oily, they say you could stand one upright and set it afire like a candle, caught in great bunches and dragged to smokehouses along what came to be called the grease trails.  All gone now.

 

A hundred years ago new people arrived.  Their ships were not like the slim husked canoe shells that managed to travel hundreds of miles up the coast and in the inland waterways, whose friend was the tide, who carried the people so they could trade with each other.  The new people had ships like floating islands with trees in their middles and over its sides the people saw mice running about.  Until the ship stopped and with a great creaking disgorged a part of itself to keep it in place and opened gates that displayed a whiter people underneath hair that had looked like mice to the people, who laughed about their mistake and the new people wondered why they laughed.  To feed the visitors the people culled two great ca’wit, salmon kings over eighty pounds each or so they say.  The new people took the salmon and ate it, and it must have tasted good, for they stayed for more, until now they have taken almost all of them.

The new people built large impermeable structures with high walls and imposing entrances.  They manned them and protected them, although there was no danger when they arrived.  And as the canoes sluiced through their ancient passages, the various tribes of the people, the Haisla and the Kitkatla, the Chawithi and the Nat’oot’en, and so many others that they didn’t bother to count, began to congregate to trade with each other and for what the new people brought and held behind their forts.  They gathered by the shores nearby to share the breezes and watch the new people and their ways.

 

A beach lined the left of the estuary, marking the mouth of the river.  Cedric walked the path from the beach that led along a dank path to a few cabins.  They had moved down to the cabins when he was four, an easier trip out to buy food when they were too few to gather or hunt.  But every year the ten year old children of the people wherever they lived were gathered by the red dressed agents of the provincial government who knew better and sent to residential schools to learn proper language and custom or be beaten or fucked if they didn’t and even if they did.  To kill the language and the songs.  To kill their time.

The boat drifted by and Cedric heard his mother’s screams louder even than his own, he saw her for the first time powerless and crying, crying even more than in the terrible winter of nineteen forty-seven when the last of the white man’s diseases, this one tuberculosis, took his brother Raymond whose stone was washed upside down by the wake of the canning ships leaving the port behind the cemetery.  Cedric was one of the ten year olds.

All that remained of the cabin was a few wooden planks soft and pliable as if they had lived under water.  He lifted one of the planks, which felt as much like earth as wood, and as he cried a line came to him from the school, “a man, yet by these tears a boy again.”  He remembered it because of the poet’s name, which he and Three Bright Feathers now Peter called Whiteman, and they were caught laughing and dragged off.

“We were only saying ‘white man,’” said Peter, but they giggled then, fresh to the school, and they were hauled to the middle of a circle of all the students on a grating hard concrete yard that hurt their feet, and then it hurt more as their pants were yanked down and a large white man took a broad flat leather strap and whacked at them leaning over until even they cried, the worst to cry in front of all the others, in front of themselves.

They were beaten by the white man for saying white man, and they knew then that any turn they took would be wrong, so they placed a part of themselves deep inside and shut it down.  Yet by these tears.

 

A sick man of the new people got on a ship in San Francisco, and came north, where the doctor said he wasn’t so sick, and he came in contact with some of the tribe as a trader, the groups around the high hard walls that the new people closed every night.  And soon a devastating illness spread through the people, paced between the two thousand canoes congregated by the fort leaking a disease for which the people had no name and no defense.  The ones not yet sick fled back to their villages, not knowing they brought smallpox into their homes, and the people died and died and died.   Half the living buried half the dead and then half of each other and then again.  And what was left of them was helpless to prevent the new people from taking what they had deserted in death.  And the people and their places died, and their customs died, and their language died, and their songs, until those that lived died.

The remaining people took to their boats to escape the pillage of death, to fish, for there were not enough of them to gather or herd, and when they returned they found the great totem guarding the dead of the people had been sawed at its base, and it was gone.

 

When he reached the mouth of the river where its force turned back the tide, Cedric had to turn on the motor to carry him further, past these places to where he was born.  He sat in the boat and looked up.  Far above on the mountainside he saw T’ismista, stone man, his head covered by a shroud, his arms by a cape, his face in shadow looking over the river and the boat and Cedric.  Cedric heard his mother tell him the story, of this young man who did not listen to the wisdom of his teachers and went high into the hills above their home to a place that was sacred, to a place he should not go.  He traveled with his two dogs up the mountain, and in the morning he was gone and he did not return but in his place this great stone figure stood looking over them forever, but no one should approach him too closely.  White hunters came up the hill once, loud and laughing, and were hurt badly, and no one followed them who knew.

When Cedric was a young man, he fell in love with a woman, a white woman.  Her father refused to let them marry, to let an Indian in his family.  She was pregnant and had a little girl; the father said if an Indian baby came into his home he would kill it.  So the baby was given up for adoption, to a minister who rode the local waterways.   She was named Cerena.  If Cedric had not been a drunk before this affair, he was afterwards.

A salmon flapped near him.  Maybe hadid, a pink, or tutupki, a young king still full of energy, not yet at the end of the cycle.  The people had many names for salmon.  The sound broke to him after the fish had disappeared.  He passed beneath stone man on his way to home.  Around many bends, the hills becoming steeper down to the river, snow still rested at the tops even in early fall.  There was no marker to where he had been born, but he recognized the stream and pulled in.  The salmon grouped in the thousands in each small pool backed by a fallen log or the remains of stones, their flesh pitted by the journey.  Some would thrash wildly, spawn, die.  Their bodies lay on the sand and dirt mounds in and around the stream, and even on the remains of the path Cedric walked, but those were gutted, tossed there.  On the other side of the stream Cedric saw a black bear, ‘qtixwa picking at the fish, pawing one, taking a bite, tossing it.  He knew to look and saw a small cub attached to the side of a tree trunk.  From his deep heart he moved so as not to startle the sow, not to get between her and her cub.  He turned away from the stream, towards his first home.

Broken light came through the canopy above.  Not far, he knew, the land was open, shaggy stumps left from the clear cutting, as great chains dragged down the hills to deposit the trees into the estuary where they were penned in circles before floated to the pulp mill.  That had been home to spirit bear, whose name he had forgotten, the white bear born somehow to black bear parents, a few in a generation then, less now with the forest empty of its trees and comfort.  Here was the cabin.  Its roof was opened by a tree that had fallen through it, the inside a replica of the land around it now, only a few walls to distinguish a space.  He walked through them.

 

He could hear his mother again, speaking to him.  He looked up to see her, high above him as when he was a boy, but heard the words echoing the last time she had spoken to him, words he barely knew.

“You are in bondage again,” she said, pointing to the bottle.  Still in bondage, and the man, my son, would throw off these chains, and be as weegit, the great man who pranced and dared.  And she smacked a bottle on a rock before he could move, but he gathered up the others and told her she did not know, and left, and the tide and his motor boat returned him to where the white man housed him, where he moved his bottles, where he stayed.  The land only bounces back once.

But her words were like a slow turning key into the part he had to hide.  He wished he could speak them aloud, even to Peter, but Peter stayed only with the ghosts now, and would not hear.  When she spoke again, in the language of the people, he understood, and he cried out, in a voice he had not used for so many years, Hear Me, yáahl, raven, of my clan, and he flew with ‘akwat’da, eagle, and drew near to Moksgm’ol, spirit bear, his name remembered.

He went back to the cemetery, and found a felled trunk that he could cradle in his arms, and he took out his knife, and began to carve.

4 Responses to “Totem”

  1. Craig Brown

    A nice story. Made me think of how much of my life I have spent carving replacement totems, not to mention other people’s totems. Now I have to think whether I like that, or not.

    Thanks, Robert.

  2. Sasha Hunt

    I LOVE this story! The AMAZING beginning and the WONDERFUL end! Both fill me with the inspiration to KEEP reading and WISH I COULD KEEP reading!

Join the discussion

  • (will not be published)