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Execution Rock

Chapter 1: The Spirit of the Thing and the Thing Itself

When the night is dark and the moon hides her face, open your eyes!

Klee-shin, chief who ruled 300 years

In the longhouse’s transformation into flame, the white whale bones piled in the centre cracked open from the heat. Now, in the morning, these bones shift once more, as if alive. A hand and wrist poke up from among them. Then a second hand, and now three, and finally, a crowd of hands rise from the bones.

Four children have escaped the wrath of the Clallam tribe. All night they had hidden beneath the bones in the narrow vertical cave with the black ocean writhing beneath their feet. The blood of their relatives fell like rain and then like pudding and then like the soft brains of sea lions. The terrible cleansing leaves the elegant bones of killer whales too hot to be held.

Four children they seem to the eye of any parent, though they are beyond; the rights of passage have been observed: the canoe dance for the girls; the order of the wolf for the boys. These children are all that remain of the Ohiaht, who had been the masters of ocean and land from the far cliff of Pachena to the seven mile banks offshore and down the channel among the many rocks studding the ocean surface to Tzartus Island. Ti-ta-shi is the sister of Mat-la-ak and daughter of the chief who had his skull broken open; Kan-o-win is the brother of Nay-ko-ta and Mat-la-ak’s best friend. It is Mat-la-ak who pushes the vertebrae aside, ones as large as cedar chests, and the four young people climb from the cold of night into the death of every person they have ever known.

Mat-la-ak is the son of the chief who lies so burned away his ribs stand in curved attention to the sun. Nay-ko-ta the soft falls upon the useless squaw who had ears but no longer eyes. Though worthless with years, she was grandmother, as the mother’s mother and all her sisters are respected.

“Oh, don’t carry on like a paid-for-her-troubles mourner.” Mat-la-ak does not feel as hard as his rebuke. But he is thinking that this is impossible, that they must get away. He can feel the danger near to him, though he cannot see it.

Picking up his friend’s part, as he always does, Kan-o-win scours his sister with the curse of which she doesn’t need reminding. “You know well it is forbidden to speak the name of someone who does not live.” Doing so, they all know, attracts the spirit of the one just dead, and that spirit, that chee-hah, will infect the person who has mistakenly alerted it to come back. These spirits last forever and are always just outside of the sight of the living and waiting to be allowed back to torture them.

Ti-ta-shi looks at both of the young men as though they have lost their minds. Together the women lift up their throats and a wail presses from Kee-hin Rock across the placid channel to lichen-stained islands.

The men are ashamed to consider leaving. But there is nothing to be done. They cannot observe the rites of passage. There are simply too many dead. Where would they come up with the many cedar boxes, for instance, that the bodies must be folded within? How would they get them down the steep path to the beach? Throw them? And wouldn’t that give the spirit of each person the attraction it needs to return? There are many questions but there is only one answer: the spirits of their relatives will be parasites, and close on this high crop, looking for ways to come back into the life of these four people. And also, the enemy that massacred all of their people may still be near. Yes, waiting here is foolhardy. With arms around their wailing sisters the boys-made-into-men drag them from the height down to the beach below.

Mat-la-ak and Kan-o-win lean away from their sisters, away from the without-words cries of pain, “Ooooooooo, yaxstz,” a kind of conversation from Ti-ta-shi, and “Oooooooooooo xsta-tateen,” from Nay-ko-ta as their feet drag from root to root, “Pashcitl- pa-schi-til”, the young women address the spirits of the bodies, the long regret, “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa,” and the stop of a throat, and again the same, the choking end, Ti-ta-shi, then Nay-ko-ta following, so loud it is in the faces of their only remaining kin like a slapping hand. The young men would join them if anything were to be gained, but they are focused on leaving this place of spirits that have no place to go. They cannot even bring the faces of those who have died up in their heads, they are both walled off to the grief right now. “You know, like octopus suckers down the arms and backs of us. A face may lose its colour as though consumed from the inside out. No, it is time to flee, and thank the fog for hiding us.”

The pair of men bend to the only canoe unbroken by club or stone. They bend to the task of dragging it down sand and shingle scarred by Clallam canoe. They pull the carved boat through a carnage of canoes and cordage, smashed ceremonial hats, broken spoons, splintered ladles, even the ermine robe of Mat-la-ak’s father, the chief.

“There is no time to grieve, no time to ensure the passage of royal ko-uts-ma.” Mat-la-ak dips the triangular paddle and shoves when sand is contacted. Well they know that common persons, those like Kan-o-win and Nay-ko-ta, are destined for the bed of spikes once they are dead, and eating the white vermin that destroys the bodies of the dead. Only Mat-la-ak’s high family is destined for the sky. Destined to visit the wolf kingdom that has its royal roads running from just beyond the bog behind the high Kee-hin Rock they have just left.

Salt water coming down her face, Ti-ta-shi picks up a paddle, and pokes the tip in Mat-la-ak’s chest. She looks at the men committing blasphemy. “Where is the food and the mat and dishes they will need?”

“We are here now and we will not speak of them,” Mat-la-ak insists and his sister falls silent. She too knows that it is unlucky to speak of the dead, just as it is wrong not to prepare them for the world where they will live in poverty, weakness and sickness, without their food and belongings. Just as unlucky for the living not to observe this obligation, for the spirit of the things, the chee-hah may swarm around the habitations of the living, causing death, if seen. She knows also, as she has been taught all her life, to fear death or coming near it or knowing anything about it. This is the law, and breaking it brings misfortune.

These four adult children paddle out from the gravel on the backs of waves. They pass shores where in winter the herring turn the waters white with milt, shores where bear sniff low tide rocks and the stupid birds, with their important white chests, squawk endlessly as though jealous of the earth that gives them life. They cannot go out to sea, and they know this, so down the long sound, down among the black mountains, they move, and with them the sea that in its flowing around islands and washing the rock islets does slow its progress until it becomes calm water. They must go inland.

This canoe Mat-la-ak had cut from a middle aged cedar, hacking with the stone attached to a stick and all last summer carved its surface a chip at a time. He is now chief, or he imagines that is what he is, and that is enough for any man: to be thrust into responsibility before his time. He thinks that he must find a new life for all of them. He thinks that he has the hopes of the Ohiaht on his back. And his eyes squirt all over the place in the thinking that his mind puts itself to. They need a place to live, to sleep, to return to with bodies of the animals, the halibut with the crooked eyes, the otter that is lovely tasting after an afternoon in a cedar cooking box. He knows that beyond the sweep of forest, there is a river that runs between the mountains. This river is the property of another chief, and that chief will protect his privileges by killing anyone who tries to take from it its fish. Afterall, the Ohiaht had killed the Clallam boys for fishing in their ocean territory off Pachena. And paid dearly for it he knows. So he must claim the sweet river that flows with dog salmon when the sun grows weary in the fall.

“Nu-muk-a-mis,” Mat-la-ak says though no one has asked where they might go, without food, without chests, without gifts, without anything. The triangular paddles dip and dip into the green ocean and the tiny craft moves among the crested islands as the sun rises and slips around from their shoulders.

“It is so labourious being a person,” Mat-la-ak says and startles himself with speaking out loud as the canoe is beached, pulled and covered with boughs. Then they creep among roots like petrified feet and push aside thorns and sit, all four in a row, knees drawn up and chins upon them. The plump Nay-ko-ta is picking soft berries and their blood stains her hands as she gives to the others. To sit with nothing, Mat-la-ak thinks, and stare at the riches of the five longhouse village across the river mouth, is to be hungrier than he can stand. He knows that all the land and all the water is divided among the many peoples of the world. And there is no where they can go that would not get them killed. Thus the only answer is to make someone leave their land. But how? He must think that story into existence.

“You know we have been taught that things are not as they seem,” begins Kan-o-win, wiping his long hair from his face, his flattened forehead considered beautiful among his people.

“We need their village for us to be strong,” interrupts Mat-la-ak. He adopts a scowl of responsibility. “What do we have here? Sitting in the bushes just up from the sea. Nothing.”

“As I was saying…,” begins and ends Kan-o-win. He has known his friend forever and knows that if a thought is put to him, he has a need to make it so. So like a child, he needs so little pushing. The berries are eaten down.

“Five houses and five departed,” Mat-la-ak’s eyes gleam with promise. “We will make them flee.” But when he asks the others to return with him to Kee-hin Rock they recoil in distaste. They have no interest in picking up the dead bodies, carrying them down the hill, and covered in blood, put them in the canoe to be brought back here. Not one of them wants to.

“The spirits of the dead will infect us, stick their noses through our arms,” protests his sister.

“And won’t they find us anyway?” He asks the question that does not need an answer. Even so his persuasion will not shift her or the others. They sit with their bodies rolled up and weary eyes perceiving nothing.

So it is Mat-la-ak’s burden and infection. “At least help me pull the canoe into the water.” Then the slow progression of paddle strokes, five on one side, then five on the other, the hair from his head flying behind him. He returns up the long sound into the soft west wind, the fishing wind; it promises no storm tonight. It brings waves that wander among the islands. He cannot help but laugh at Kan-o-win. He knows about the wolf secret, for he has been initiated. And, of course, he knows about the spirit of the thing and the thing itself, meaning that even this paddle is both a paddle and an individual spirit of this particular paddle and no other. And so on for everything in the world. Everything has two parts. When he angles in to the beach before the high rock, he throws his legs over the side and wades the cedar cordage up and ties to the bending willow. Among the roots and rocks feet have worn the dirt into a path, past the wedged logs, Mat-la-ak mounts the cliff, pulling here and there on the stalks of juniper, a good ten-hand of fern, but not the alder. Why even two inches thick and it still snaps off in the hand.

On the top of Kee-hin Rock all is as before, fired ribcage of longhouse and charred bodies. He takes the grandmother first, and rips a piece off her mantle to release its spirit. Now the garment may be used by her in the land of the dead. Then he gently selects a child, so young it is totally ignorant and worthless, such a shame, one who had the smile of an otter, now has her skull pushed together. He picks up the small one with an arm, the body so rigid it holds on its own like a doll. This one, he slices with the blade of a mussel shell. And this is how he goes among the ruins, the posts bitten by flame, the mats chewed by fire. He tears a strip off the cedar blankets, the clothes, the bedding, dishes, lamps, pelts. The wooden bowls for food he breaks to release their spirits so the implements may be used in the underworld. Five bodies he takes in total, their coagulated blood mixes on his chest. As is the custom and law, he takes each body out feet first from where it lays in the ruins, kicking out a plank to drag the body through the wall. Then he wedges the slat shut so he can never go back through again. As though he would return willingly – to death.

“Please do not know me,” he says at the edge of the meadow where it turns sharp down to beach and swallowing wave. He drops each body in its turn over the edge. One last look and a final “Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh,” of grief wrenches out of him, as if food were bringing itself back up his throat.

Each body is laid on its back in the canoe. He struggles against the death grip to bend the legs and takes a large rock in both hands to smash the front of the canoe, thereby rendering it useful in the world that resides beside this one but is never seen. Along his paddled track he strews the strings of shell money in the sea. His cargo of five, with their legs bent up in the air, pulls toward the largest tongue of river, across the orange bladder wrack beach from Nu-muk-a-mis, the village he hopes to secure. But when he pushes the bow toward the beach Kan-o-win is there to ward him off.

“Do not land,” Kan-o-win says and wades into the water with a pole he has been sharpening on a rock.

Kinder, but just as concerned, for the bodies and for her brother’s safety, Ti-Ta-Shi, softens the refusal. “You take a great risk.” She and all the others have witnessed what results from not observing the established procedure of setting free the spirit of the body: the spiral of healthy people into the place where their body does not move either.

Mat-la-ak is lonely with duties and doesn’t need to be reminded of his foolishness. He raises his finger, its long line of blood. He needs them to understand that they play a part in taking the village of five longhouses across the sandy beach of the river mouth.

“Take up position behind the longhouses,” he says and points across the darkening land so his finger settles on Nu-muk-a-mis. “I want you to do so in the dark when you will not be seen walking across this wide beach. When the sun comes and the village people shriek the horror of waking up beside dead people, you will see me rise from the water. Make the voice of the chee-hah until I have all the people looking at only my head above water.”

Mat-la-ak turns his hand down and makes the scurrying of legs with his fingers. He laughs a bitter laugh and washes his hand, his body in a shrug of wave. Soon his vessel melts into the dark, as though something recalled from where it had come.

Ti-ta-shi calls after his shadow, “Remember, ask for a gift… to show your respect.” She means to tell him that if he does not carry through with his plan, at least they may be the recipients of whatever good object that an Indian is honour-bound to give when asked to be generous. But there is no answer and so Nay-ko-ka says, a bit louder. “It is quite proper, we think.”

“It is an honour.” Kan-o-win shouts as loud as he dares, for the night silence travels words far over water to alert a foe. None of them would risk the dangers Mat-la-ak undertakes for their well being. None would ride in the broken canoe, with their relatives with hard frozen arms. The three settle for the night in heavy dew that falls from autumn like wet leather. The warmth of their bodies intertwines under the brush they have laid together and they wait, shivering, for the first fingers of light to open up the world.

Not without jumbled feelings does Ti-ta-shi close her sleepless eyes against the night, against the spirits who would love to lure them into the forest. What if the residents will not go? What if the chee-hahs of the unfortunate dead Ohiaht hear their names and refuse to depart? What about the sacrilege to those who remain at Kee-hin? What will happen if the Indians realize they have been deceived? What if her brother and her friends succumb to boils and chest infections so determined they choke chunks of their lungs out of their bodies? Or wither with the invisible hands upon them? Better to burn, she thinks and closes her arm around Nay-ko-ta, who is herself facing her brother with her arms open. All the hours, one or more of three pairs of eyes open as dark pools in a dark pool of night.

While the others fidget in waking sleep, Mat-la-ak’s canoe slides to stillness on Nu-muk-a-mis sand. Five longhouses inhabit the high tide line where pale moon struggles with mist that moves upon the land like a slow mouth. Over his shoulder goes Nay-ko-ta’s grandmother, and the spear in his hand. From shadows comes sideways loping – a wolf? No, thank goodness – only a dog, a mongrel that would just as well snatch the food from a man’s hand as snatch the hand itself. It raises its head to protest a scent it cannot tell from danger and the spear slips between its shoulder blades. Mat-la-ak leans upon the spear and when the beast surrenders, lifts it by the scruff and carries both grandmother and dog. A line of moon light falls down his arm.

Mat-la-ak starts with the longhouse at the far end, the one nearly surrounded by forest. In the ember light he places the wizened squaw upon the chim-ilh bed, beside a sleeping man and wife. He takes the spear and, hardening his face, inserts it in her chest. He finishes by composing her shielding hands around the shaft. He lifts a matting cover and the dog, still warm, is put with another sleeping man and woman.

Mat-la-ak’s deception is repeated many times, first in the house with long posts at the corners, its painting as high as two men, in salmon roe and grease and black. Then another body is placed in another longhouse and so on. He makes no more noise than the sighing of night among the highest remaining leaves. After he has left the final body in the bed of a sleeping Indian, Mat-la-ak sits on a log on the beach and tears fall from his eyes.

Before first light comes to the treetops, Mat-la-ak has stolen away with his broken boat and secured it in bushes at water’s edge. With a stone as broad as his shoulders resting on the ground between his legs, he waits for the villagers to howl their fear in the morning. He knows that his trying to deceive them depends on his ability to make himself appear magically, from the water, in a way that no man can.

When the frightened screams begin, he strips his clothing until he stands naked in the morning. He picks up his stone and walks into the ocean, the shell of a sharpened mussel between his teeth. First he walks to his waist then chest then neck and finally in the soundless ocean that is alive with more colour than the numbered and named shades of green he descends, holding his breath.

In what would otherwise be a stroll through gorgeous colour Mat-la-ak stumbles as he runs. Past anemones, white and ghostly or orange as late sun. Past starfish, purple and lying together like man and woman. Past the vermilion eels, the seabed of barnacles beaks as sharp as stripping knives. Ribbons of blood soon rise from his soles.

Mat-la-ak refuses to think of the beauty around him, refuses to give in to his fear of the danger in his actions. The only thing he allows is what he cannot avoid: my lungs must burst: I am becoming thick as blood in winter. Then he turns where he knows they will be waiting at water’s edge to launch their canoes. First the reeds with which he has bound his hair break the surface and then his forehead, eyes and then his mouth. When his head has appeared he stares at the Indians yelling on the shore.

“Who has summoned me from my home,” he shouts. “Who has ruined my sleep?” Only his head to his open mouth is above the water and he stays there with the rock in his arms to make the deception of walking up from the deep sea more credible. As everyone knows, his body would surely float higher than he stands. So he holds his rock beneath the surface and stands there angrily.

The women and men turn to see his head standing on the water, and would retreat, but there is no where to go. “I hear your feeble cries so loud I cannot sleep in my ocean bed.” Beneath his mouth his body is beginning to cool in the early winter ocean. His knees, his brown slim arms are beginning to shake. His voice he must control, it’s shivering.

When he has been told, haltingly of the people from beyond found in every house, he is sneering and shaking his head at the people’s stupidity. “Rub the dung of wolves on your faces to protect you from the small smudges of the dead.”

When they shake their heads and take to their canoes, he says, “Better to be alive than chee-hah,” which he says with spit, but also respect to the chief who all know is bound for a better beyond, than a poor misguided spirit. “Better to be alive.”

“And who, great father, are you?” is the response, for the chief has long worn his chee-to-lith club; he has his many years, and narrows his eyes at trouble. At this moment wailing comes up from the forest so close it seems to emanate from the houses themselves. And the Indians draw back once more, from the houses, closer to the wrinkled head of Mat-la-ak appearing from the sea.

“I am the doctor, the drawer of min-ook-eck.” Mat-la-ak says boldly, though inside he is bark, shredded between stones. He knows he must convince them he can suck the danger into his body until it is gone from the world. In his moving forward, sun carves down his chest and the slim curve of his waist. The rock is dropped between his feet. Water drips from the cheeks of his muscle. He stands on the beach in his nakedness, hoping the shaking of his limbs will not be seen. He has danced the wolf dance and he knows that pain is not for showing. With his eye on the eye of the chief, a man who is not so young as to be easily bluffed, he lifts his mussel knife and slices hair from the startled man’s head.

“I will take this spirit and the spirit of all your good people.”

But the chief merely holds Mat-la-ak’s wrist in a good hard grip and says to him, “I have never seen a power beyond that of the night world. And I am sure that you mean well,” he utilizes the ceremonial tone, the tone that means he has accepted the truth of what is standing before him. Mat-la-ak is finally stilled, his heart that beat so prodigiously it would break his ribs. His plan is secure.

The chief opens the fingers of Mat-la-ak’s hand and takes back the sprig of his hair. “I will be responsible for the spirit of my own hair and those of my people.” He shakes his head and the others file into the waiting canoes.

“I will suck the parasites from your village.”

“You will die young doctor, though your powers I have not heard of,” the chief pauses and adds cannily, “may be strong.” Behind his crossed arms their winter encampment is making a horrible sound.

“I will min-ook your village and then the ghosts may not follow you. I will make your village clean. There will be no dangers you cannot see but can feel on your skin.” Mat-la-ak pulls a charred body from the closest house and puts it to his mouth. “Do not be so yellow,” he says and sucks fluid from the broken skin. He is revolted to be sucking at his dead relatives and testing good fortune so. He does not want to perfect the deception on every body. It carries dangers and his life is now, he realizes, lips closing on the burned skin, one of endless work. It cannot end now. They must leave.

Also a prudent man, the chief orders his people away from danger and allows this young doctor – who is also just a man, he thinks – his way. The chief knows it is unwise to argue with a doctor. The practitioner’s wrath may then be directed at the disputer. He also knows should his people succumb to the chee-hah of the unknown bodies, the casting doctor can be silenced with a chee-tow-lith club and the sentence lifted. Better to move his people away and if the doctor is successful, so much the better. If he is not, then he will surely succumb for his blasphemy and trying to alter that which is dangerous. It is dangerous indeed to play with a poisonous snake. Dangerous to touch a person who is dead.

The canoes become one with haze lifting from far islands where mountains melt into sea and Mat-la-ak is vomiting the liquids taken into his body. Swinging the shalal aside, the ferns high as their chests, the other three adult children come slowly from the forest.

“Taking the ko-uts-ma,” Ti-ta-shi begins, referring to the spirit of a human being, and has her words finished by Mat-la-ak, “Is dangerous. But now we have a village… and wealth.” This they cannot deny. How awkward the fate of them to be without completely from their families and to have just won the many needed things to keep them alive. The roofs of the longhouses, the seal bladders and nets for hunting, the round cedar hooks for fishing.

All three stand to the side not willing to come close to Mat-la-ak, so he adds with angry triumph, “The min-ook-eck sum.”

“The min-ook-eck sum?” his sisterlaughs, hands on her hips. She might as well have opened her eyes until they fell out of their sockets. Does he truly think that the people are going to move away from their homes, and then pay the price of having no choice but to leave them? “How stupid you are.”

“They will pay. That is the law.” Mat-la-ak has insistent eyes, his voice must be louder than hers, he thinks, and then it comes to him his voice need not be louder, it must be convincing, it must be persuading, and the lesson of being chief lands squarely in his head. He will do better in times to come.

“You are so without years.” Ti-ta-shi shouts at him and then no other word will come from her throat and she is without speech, without confidence, in herself, in anything. Their people are dead.


When the Ohiaht bodies have been put in cedar chests and the tops cracked open, when matting has been wrapped and secured with cedar bark rope, when the blanketed wood boxes have been wrapped and secured once more, it is evening. The boxes, which only Mat-la-ak will touch, are dragged one at a time into the forest. He leaves each one under a great tree as thick as two humans with their arms out wide. Each occupant is left eyes pointing to the east, and feet as well, to be able to see and walk where the day comes from. To protect the living from discovering the boxes and thus be terribly infected, Mat-la-ak covers the boxes with branches.

Once the five have been placed in the morning light, Mat-la-ak has performed the responsibility of the living. He gathers his clothes and his mantel and walks into the forest. He hears the river, the Tsa-uk, the beautiful stream of braiding water. It is now his. It is now the property of the Ohiaht. And then he realizes that there are no Ohiaht, save the four of them. And he cannot expect to hold onto this river or its fish with only his friend to stand beside him. But he cannot think further right now. He would begin the necessary fasting to make him strong but simply cannot control his turning stomach.

Under the stars of autumn he enters the Tsa-uk River, to cleanse himself of the unhappy and confused, their sucking parts like the short black water things that wriggle their way to blood.

Every one of every People knows that every thing is two things: the spirit of the thing and the thing itself. Unless the thing itself is broken to release its spirit it has no rest nor the object any usefulness. From long years of many mistakes, the discontented and jealous spirits have multiplied so as to fill the air as with tiny insects that hover in the late of day in numbers too numerous to be estimated. He knows that he must be perfect in his washing of himself and of observing in a lowered voice to prevent his falling prey to the spirits of his dead relatives.

Mat-la-ak sits in the Tsa-uk and scrapes his arms and legs of blood that dissolves into the water and is no more. He takes the branches with the thorny bits, the blackberry, the forest rose. His skin, from his forehead to his toes, he scrapes and scrapes again.


After the days and nights – ‘Is it only three,’ Mat-la-ak thinks, – hunger has not come for him. He can feel the spirits as though he has sucked too much marrow or dug too deeply in the bag of bear intestines in which the grease is stored. But it does not escape him as he bathes that the river, his river, the river of his people, here he lowers his head, because he can hardly believe it, the river of the Ohiaht, is filled with dog salmon and he knows he has chosen well. With the opening sun, he stands like a heron in its hunting. Fish as large as his leg and covered with bars of purple and yellow, with long teeth from snouts swim by, fins on the skin of his legs.

“We will be great again,” he says and his eyes burn with the necessity of this truth. He must bring his people back in numbers or he and the three others will be the end. The last Ohiaht. This is something that he cannot even think. Only yesterday they danced on their high fortress over the edge of the ocean. Today they are nothing.

When Mat-la-ak is finally hungry, when the skin of his body has been flayed into pink cuts and the fine mist of blood has swum upon the evening air, he has meditated and found no vision, no animal to come for his protection. Still, he examines his hands and finds no ulcerations, no bowls of eating pus. “Perhaps I will live.”

Over the trees comes red light and he knows he is in peril for it is a light that comes from the west where the sun cannot return. Then he hears a great twisting sound, a crackling like the bones that burst on Kee-hin Rock while they hid below the whale bones in the narrow passage way down to the sea below. Then there is the whoosh of wind drawn from between the trees. Even the small branches with their loads of needles bend toward the village. He walks toward his prize, his village, clean as a stone from the river.

Mat-la-ak’s feet choose their path across the white sand beach and around trees now roaring with flame. The longhouses are breaking apart and the long red stain of thousands of sparks lift to the sky. The three others are breaking everything they see and heaping it into the fire they have made. Better, they think, to destroy the infected village than to stay and let the slow death come for them. They break the left-behind spears, the buckets, the cooking boxes, the ladles, the posts. The village for which Mat-la-ak has risked his life is ablaze. Running people feed its translation into sparks.

Mat-la-ak unleashes his anger on his few member tribe, “I despise you like the raven that has shortened the lives of all men by three of their four parts and so this life is so precious that we no longer muddy ourselves talking of the dead.” Couldn’t they have even waited to talk with him after his vigil in the forest. They know that you have to be completely cleansed to make the ghosts unable to see you and feel you.

“Yes, I know all that,” cries Ti-ta-shi. “And it is true that you have taken great risk – for all of us – and you are a brave brother….” She feels guilty for not having waited, but then it seemed to all of them that perhaps he was not coming back. And if he was dead for his troubles, wouldn’t their association with this stolen village leave them to die as well? They know the dead do not discriminate; they will take anyone alive to their world of endless spears and thorns.
“All this is wasted then. All the danger I have assumed.” Even in his anger, his loss, for all that he has risked, Mat-la-ak can see the longhouses are collapsing. There is no point arguing, for their minds must, on this matter, be at rest. There is the unspoken agreement that all the people of every tribe be allowed to speak and be given the respect of being listened. It is true that Mat-la-ak had forced the others to do as he wished. He had seen the need, but he moved into action where he could have taken the customary approach of persuading the others. Even Nay-ko-ta. She fingers the fine cedar boiling box and it reluctantly drips from her fingers into flame that stamps the outline of her sleek body against the dark.

“Great wrong has been done and we cannot make it worse.” Ti-ta-shi adds, “Our relatives cry out for the little we can give to ease their suffering.” She says this to try and make him see, but he has already acquiesced. There is nothing that can be done now but help the others find every last item, break it and add it to the fuel. Mat-la-ak searches for comfort in his belief the sum for min-ook-ecking, that is, pulling the disease from the village will still be paid. And how, he suddenly thinks, will the people who have vacated be content to give up their good territory for good? It’s unlikely, he thinks, and his plan had this obvious flaw he couldn’t seem to see in his rush toward a solution. But it also comes to him that this burning will warn the former residents that the infection has too strong to be fought. That it resulted in the need for destruction.

When all combustibles have been thrown and fire licked its greediest, when its tall flames cast light across the ocean to the islands where all who lived here know that it is destroyed, Mat-la-ak calls the others to sit and cool their black- and sweat-lined faces. He will tell them of their future.

Holding his hand for quiet before fire that will not be silenced, Mat-la-ak walks to the Tsa-uk and stands among the fish in the shallows, waiting for tide to take them to their spawning. In the moon light he bends and waits for the fins to slither past. Perhaps, he thinks, this is the way he may have felt before he was born. He will not say his mother’s name, only understand these dog salmon heavy with eggs may be supposed to be a gift. The jawbones slides between his hands as if to say, ‘Yes, to you, Mat-la-ak, I give myself.’ He sinks his nails into gills and lifts above his head the gift of food still struggling. Quickly, with the knife hidden between the folds of her bark mantel, Nay-ko-ta swings her blade along its black-streaked flank. Its eye gleams out as though watching her hand and knife bring it to death. This is the way of fish, their lot, Mat-la-ak thinks, and their sadness, in their losing their one-time-only life. And they give up their meat if they are willing to comply and the ritual of oos-im-itch has been observed. Wearily, Mat-la-ak notes that that most powerful spell is required but he is too tired to take himself into the forest for the many more days of fasting and abstaining from his friends. He will do it in the future, lay his kindest words out in the forest to console the dead, the spirit of the body once the body is gone.

When the chunks of steaming flesh are in their hands and the juice slides down their arms before the fire, Mat-la-ak begins his speech. “I have a vision for us all, and we must make it. You must make it.” And his finger falls first on one and then the other two. It has come to him that the only thing that the four of them can do is double and redouble their efforts until they produce once more the formidable nation that they had been. He stops for a moment and lies back against the log on the beach, his hand propping up his head.

“You?” his sister chides. It is not for him to speak their minds now, she thinks.

Mat-la-ak must now persuade them of his vision of their lives. And with the great meal of fish in his stomach he finds his eyes growing heavy. So he lowers his chin and begins again, with more respect. He knows he must be chief and he knows that Kan-o-win who does not share his blood must share his sister. He knows also that she must agree or the Ohiaht are doomed as an individual day to have their brightness ended. “We were meant to be dead, but we are not and that must have been meant to be also. With our good fortune we will build an Ohiaht tribe that will never be cleared out again.”

Lines of wet down her cheek, Ti-ta-shi interrupts quietly, “You are a spring that believes its promise. You are green with your newness and cannot see that the Ohiaht are at their end. We have lost all.”

“Of course,” he says impatiently and continues struggling at finding the right words to soothe his sister. And finally her anger snuffs him out. He closes his eyes to find again the soft words he must say that she will not anger against, seeing they hold no lie, no sense of trickery. His breath comes evenly and long and at the end of one comes his decision. “I will take Nay-ko-ta as my wife and you will go with Kan-o-win.”

A strangled cry comes from Ti-ta-shi. Yes, it is true, that her own mother has had her skull beaten until they recognized only the ring on her finger, the copper nugget, so long before their father lifted from Copper Mountain and flattened with a long stone. Even with that truth, she is aghast at the mention of Kan-o-win; he is a commoner and she, as is her brother, of royal blood.

Quickly, but quietly, Mat-la-ak, who feels the same about Nay-ko-ta but vows not to reveal it – she does, after all, bear the future of his people – agrees. “It’s not so bad as ghosts.” he says to soften his fair sister. He uses, however, the soft tone for his friend may take offence, and rightly so. As common people, Kan-o-win and his sister, knows that the other two have a fine future after death, one where they feel no discomfort, ones where they are never cold or hungry or wet. Where they are not snapped at by the jaws of dogs.

Fortunately, and Mat-la-ak seems to see Kan-o-win down a tunnel in his eye, his friend seems to warm to the plan. Even now he is regarding the fair and spirited Ti-ta-shi. The possibility of sinking himself within her has taken his mind, in that simple, single-minded one-eyed blindness of a man that is the bone in his crotch.

“We have been fortunate to trick this tribe,” Mat-la-ak corrects her and gestures in an absent way at the smoking embers of the longhouses behind them. Mat-la-ak feels a warming to what he will say, so close upon the deaths of all of the people they have even known.

Only now does Nay-ko-ta make a small protest, one that is more a query at the impossibleness of it all, “It may not last with them.” She is a small spirit and the most timid of the four. She does not think so highly of herself that on her own she would aspire to be even the first wife of one man. She would take what is offered, even if it were to be the last wife of four or even five. To have the possibility of the first line man, Mat-la-ak, is something of great good fortune.

“I would have preferred to kill them instead.” Mat-la-ak says fiercely and with matter of factness, too, “You don’t think I think so?”

“But we are only four…” is Nay-ko-ta’s thought offered to the flames and the ground and the fretwork of salmon carcass on the log behind. She cannot speak into a person speaking loudly in her face.

“Yes.” says Mat-la-ak and let’s a great satisfied laugh go. He adds, for the sheer pleasure of it all. “For now.” and he rolls toward Nay-ko-ta, and seems to move right through the fire between them, until he moves right into her as into the arms-open-wide welcoming of Hominika, the long breasted totem pole that endures rain that falls like beads upon the sea. Mat-la-ak sees, like an endless accumulation of waves, the wealth of children in his mind. To his startled sister and friend he bobs his head for them to do the same. “For Ohiaht.” he encourages.

With a great good heaving of sigh, Ti-ta-shi rolls back, and though with anger in her eye, lifts up her thighs. She has understood as well. She has heard her father’s talk around the fire until her eyes were too heavy for her ears. When he spoke he did so because others would listen and that is her responsibility now: to listen and then do, for that is duty and right, and of course, there is no option. Mat-la-ak is surprised to see his sister give in to their necessary destiny, but it seems as natural as can be for he and his new wife to be lying with his sister and her new husband, all with the same purpose, to bring forth the needed children, the scores of wick-tuck-yu that makes a tribe into greatness.

Upon the white sand sprawled along the shore, Mat-la-ak has the good fortune to discover Nay-ko-ta not as objectionable as he might have thought. She is warm and receptive as his mother might have been and he is happy. If there is pain, for she is 14, and the folds of her babyhood hang on her belly and the shy white nipples of breasts in beautiful brown skin, yes, if there is pain, she does not show it.

“We are making a nation.”

“Oh, yes great chief,” mocks Ti-ta-shi. Though her brother is a good man he talks like a bird that would deceive you while believing its own twittering.

“Strike deep Kan-o-win, and hard, go to seed in there.” Mat-la-ak urges his boyhood friend. Ti-ta-shi reaches over from under Kan-o-win’s rocking bulk and smacks her brother playfully, for she is not unknown to the pleasantness of her situation. Mat-la-ak hardly notices, lying there finding the insides of Nay-ko-ta much to his liking and much more and continually so until he succeeds in seeding the nation of his dreams, and, of course, necessity.

“You are so stupid.” Ti-ta-shi says but it is not obvious to whom she is speaking and the tone of her voice is filled with humour, like when she herself has done something wrong and the foolishness of it is revealed in the teasing voices of others. She leans her head back to hear forward, to hear a dream, to hear her own worthless person rasping at her insides. Far back from her pleasure is the legend they know not that they will become. But there will come a day that Mat-la-ak will in his thinking suddenly look up from the beach where he is picking the small dried grasses to light a fire and the story will come to him. His best one to make the many others of his people see who they are. But he cannot see that far this night, and with his Nay-ko-ta so close, he wouldn’t want to.

“You’ll beg me for this,” Kan-o-win, emboldened says to Ti-ta-shi, and she, “I’ll beg someone.” Yet she takes her hand and holds it to his hair and closes her eyes, feels with her fingers the long bone of his forehead where it had been bound with cloth and two cedar shingles to make his head long and beautiful.

And the last word comes from shy Nay-ko-ta, “You both are such crooked people, now. I cannot help but laugh.”

Mat-la-ak opens his eyes from the peak of love to say his thanks, to her, to the others for doing their parts. But what he returns to is darkness. Night moisture is upon his skin and the roaring fire is reduced to red embers that gleam up from inside the very ground. He has been asleep. He has had a sleeping vision. And the dream means – for it would not come to him were it not true – that with long years of work his people will once again prosper on this earth at the edge of the sea. He can close his eyes without conjecture, without questioning whether the few others will listen to him. They will follow indeed, he needs only patience and soft speaking.