"The mail", she chuckled dryly. Incredible how important it had become. Like some pigeon in a psych experiment, she imagined herself trekking back and forth to the post office. Day after day, back and forth on any pretext she'd heard a plane, like the pigeon pecking endlessly. At least she could talk with the postmistress. That is, until today. Walking through the door, gum boots wet and squeaking on the muddy floor, Slakum saw a hand printed sign, "NO MAIL YET TODAY". The postmistress sat in the back cozily drinking coffee.
Sighing again, Slakum finished picking up the scattered pages. Her mind wandered back to the first days of her marriage to Kadah. He was so gentle, strong and bright; the first lawyer in his tribe. Leaning against the kitchen counter she thought how new and clear her sight had seemed, how beautiful were the snow capped mountains and the Eagles of Alaska soaring against them. Everything had seemed so good at first. She was confident that the ways of her own western tribe would unite here with these strange ocean people. Shaking her head, she marveled at her naiveté. Surely Kadah had noticed. He might have cautioned her.
"Scaga, Scaga" they had called her ... witch doctor. Praying and purifying in the backyard Sweat Lodge, they had been mocked by the locals and heard the jeers at the "primitive practices" of the "outside Indians". Those taunting voices still rang in her ears. The drunks and Christians calling names escalated to such crowds that Kadah feared for their safety and came home early from work one day and took down the lodge. Now only the bare ground remained. The black hole that had been the fire pit stared like a sad eye up into the stormy night.
Now Slakum jumped. Rubbing her chilled arms, she prayed aloud, ''The Fire! God don't let the fire be out". Kadah was virtually marooned on the mainland, and the kindling and wood supply was nearly used up. The few fragments that remained were soaking wet. The fire must not die!
Hurrying to the woodstove, Slakum dragged the flannel cuff of her shirt down over her hand, grabbed the hot iron handle and threw open the stove door. Plenty of coals left, 'she groaned with relief. Just then, a gust of wind burst down the stove pipe spewing a cloud of ash and dust out the door enveloping her. Coughing and sputtering, she slammed it ... too late! Smoke alarm buzzed its wasp voice through the hall and into the room of the sleeping children. Seizing a big piece of cardboard, Slakum ran through the trailer opening doors and frantically waving at the smoke. "Please don't let the kids wake up," she implored.
For days Slakum waited for a chance to write. Seven years of course work and research now only weeks from deadline. If only it weren't for village chores - packing wood, hauling water, washing clothes by hand. All the things easy down south were impossible here. She put the cardboard down and listened. The alarm was silent, tiny snores were peaceful in the bedroom.
"Only one more chore and I can get back to my writing" she thought and jumped into her storm coat. Stepping outside, she ran through the rain to the wood pile. "Good, there is a big wet chunk left." It could smolder until morning. She wrestled the slimy cedar into her arms and turned to go back inside. She screamed! Someone stood only a few feet away!
Slakum croaked, "Who's there!" Crunching footsteps in the gravel brought the figure nearer. Oh, it was a child! Wet shoulders were slouched and small hands thrust deep in her pockets. The little girl came closer. Slakum saw she was trembling.
"Ama! What are you doing out in this weather?" Looking into the tear-filled eyes of the child, she knew. Her parents must be drinking again.
"The kids are sleeping, dear." Slakum fought her desire to send the child away. Quickly she added, ''but you better come in and dry off". Ama nodded and led the way up the steps. Inside Slakum started jabbing the logs onto the fire angrily. Impatient, fretting over this delay in her work, she fumed. "Damn these people". Looking at the child, cold, wet, probably sad, she thought and felt ashamed and loving. She heard herself say. "Do you want some hot cocoa?"
"All right", the small voice chirped. There seemed to be a new, little tone of hope in it.
As the crackle of cedar fire filled the room in bright warmth, the cocoa came to a bubble. Slakum poured two cups and the two of them sat down on the couch. In a while the little girl began to talk.
They're having Bible study group down at the Church nearly every night now, and Mrs. Pach is so nice to me and the rest
of the ladies too...
Images of the stout missionary wife filled Slakum's mind and muffled Ama's voice which seemed far away. The last thing this child needed was those vipers on her case...
Adopted at birth, Ama had been given to a couple with drinking problems. When she was nearly four, the couple divorced. It was then that the doctors noticed the hazing of the girl's right eye. The cancer took the vision completely. And the surgery which saved her life left her with one glass eye. Recently the mother had remarried, this time to the biggest drunk in town. With no income for doctors, the child had to continue wearing an eye fitted for her more than two years earlier. The other day, Ama said, she'd turned to see what her teacher wanted and the eye fell out right in front of everyone. The village kids squealed with glee. They hated Ama, for her early years in the city, for her differences and her gentleness. They were on her like a pack of dogs at the slightest chance. Today, Slakum had looked out the window when Ama turned to face her tormenters. Charging into a group of three, the little girl fought wildly. She lost the fight and had a big bruise on her face to show for it. But she had fought. "Maybe now", thought Slakum, "maybe now, they'll leave her alone". But she doubted it.
Just then, the child's voice pulled Slakum back.
Mrs. Pach says if I pray to Christ and go to Church we could get saved. My Mom and Dad could quit drinking
and I wouldn't have to worry any more. Sometimes I'm so afraid for my Mom. She says, 'Ama, don't every leave me.
I'll die if you go'. And I don't know what to do. I wish I could go live with my first Dad down in Portland. He
wants me to live with him and he's good to me. But I'm afraid for my Mom. I tell her, "Mom, get a divorce. You
and Al could still be friends. I'll stay with you". I'm afraid something is going to happen... I can't sleep
at night. They're always fighting ... I prayed like they told me, but... Tonight they're really fighting. AI pushed
my Mom against the wall and said if he caught her again ... And that's when I left the house. I walked up here,
Beach Way and found this feather. See, it looks just like yours, so I thought I would come here.
Looking down at the white Eagle feather clutched in the child's hand, Slakum choked up.
"Ama, come here. Let me hug you," she said. Holding the girl in her arms, Slakum continued. "Ama, anytime things are bad at home come over here". She wiped Ama's tears. Pointing to the feather, she said,
This feather you found, it's really good, Ama.
Indian way, we know it is a gift from Creator.
It's a way of letting you know you are loved.
Most of us wait a long time for such a wonderful
You are so young, yet you have this. What can it mean?
The woman and child talked on. Slakum sensed that the child needed something more. Suddenly she remember
the photographs that had arrived on the last mail plane.
"Ama, would you like to see the pictures I took of the rock carvings at Blue Mountain?"
The child nodded. Searching through the piles of books and papers, Slakum began to think... The petroglyphs. It was the only real work Slakum had found in the village. Looking for connections, she had finally found this ancient, holy site. Most local people had never heard of the rocks and fewer had ever seen them. That first trip, as her skiff neared the site, chills swept over Slakum's body. Without thinking she jumped from the boat, offered tobacco and feverishly started to chalk in and photograph. There were hundreds of designs. But there was barely time for two visits, when fall winds and storms made the trip over open ocean impossible. Now only the handful of photographs remained to show for the high hopes she had had on this discovery.
Shuffling through the photographs, a wave of shame swept over Slakum. "How dumb can I be?" she thought. The single most prominent feature of the carvings was, EYES! In her excitement, Slakum dropped a picture. Instantly Ama snatched it up. She looked at the photo for a long time, then asked, "What's this one?"
For the first time Slakum saw a new aspect of the carving. Photographed upside down, she had not recognized the design until now. It was Raven with the sun in his beak! "Anmean, ahmeah," she whispered excitedly, something is happening! Shaking with a sense of the presence of spirits, Slakum explained:
Ama... this One is sacred. There is a very old old story behind it. You see, at one time, the world was in blackness.
The only things that broke the Quiet were waves pounding argillite shores and the whisper of cockles on
In this place, Raven created human beings and the loneliness was ended. But People were like shadows moving
in the darkness... they were afraid and unhappy. Raven saw this and wondered how to help the people.
But Raven is a trickster so naturally he thought of a plan to get light away from the man who had it.
Changing himself into a nettle floating in the stream, He was swallowed by the Man's daughter, when she came
to drink. Later, she gave birth to a beautiful boy, who was really Raven. The man, who was no Raven's Grandfather,
came to love the boy very much and really spoiled him.
So when Raven began fussing for the box that the sun was in, the Grandfather finally relented and let the boy
play with it.
Slowly Raven child slid the lid from the box. LIGHT, wondrous Light radiated out, penetrating the darkness.
Quickly, the boy changed back into Raven. He seized the orb of Light in his beak and Flew to the smoke-hole.
But the opening was narrow; he got stuck for a few moments, and that's how Raven who was white to begin
with, turned Black... from the soot and smoke.
When Raven broke free from the smoke-hole, he flew with the Light to the beach. Taking the disc, he broke it
on a rock and threw the pieces to the sky. They became stars, Moon and Sun.
And that's what this rock picture is about. Raven has two different Eyes on this carving because he Sees two
different ways. One is the regular way and the other is the Spirit way. Raven is a Spirit Being.
Ama jumped up from the couch. "And me, what about me? I have two different Eyes! Do you think I could see
like that some time?"
Fighting tears, Slakum answered.
"Child, there is no doubt. There hasn't been a traditional healer here in a long time. Maybe through you, the People will See Good again... "
The child interrupted.
"Can I use your phone to call my Dad in Portland? I've been trying for three days but couldn't get an answer at his house. I'll call collect."
Slakum nodded assent. As Ama began to dial, Slakum picked up the cocoa cups, and walked back into the kitchen. Washing up the dishes, she could hear Ama say:
"Dad? Dad? I'm so glad I got you ... I tried for three days ... Dad, do you know what my Eyes mean? They mean I might be a Medicine person some day!"
Hearing the joy in the child's voice, Slakum's heart filled with pride. She mentally patted herself on the back for finding the exact right solution to the child's problems. But just as she began to enjoy her glory, she heard Ama say:
"How do I know? Dad, this OLD woman told me."
Hands suspended in sudsy water, Slakum heard a strange sound ... her own laughter! OLD WOMAN?! Here she was, at 37, filled with triumph and pride - and this little girl had burst her bubble fast! Slakum laughed till her shoulders shook. Tears ran down her face . . . "Raven, you got me good this time!" she chuckled.
Hearing the receiver click down into the phone, Slakum grinned, composed herself and rounded the corner into the living room. "Well, "she asked, "What did your Dad have to say?"
Ama answered: "Well, I told him about the Raven rock and the Eyes and how I might be a spiritual person."
"What did your Dad say?" Slakum queried.
"He said, 'You know I believe it.''' Ama pulled on her jacket.
"Where are you going, Ama?"
"I'm going home. They'll be asleep now". Ama grabbed her feather and the two stepped out into a still night. The rain and wind were gone. Bright stars glittered in an inky sky.
As Ama walked away, Slakum handed the photo to her. "Keep it; it belongs with you."
Slakum waited and listened to the small feet slapping the wet earth of the road. When she heard Ama's front door slam, Slakum climbed back up to the trailer. Standing on the top step, thinking about the night and her unexpected promotion to "Elder", she thought she heard the words of Nana, Kadah's 100 year-old Grandmother:
And the Way the Old People used to tell it
He was a wonderful Bird!
“And I believe it," she said to herself and the cold listening, night air.
~ A special thanks to Mary Tall Mountain for her editing and to Viola Morrison, Haida Elder for her help.