by Abbey Seth Mayer
IN THE TIME BEFORE
They say that they were both born to good families.
He would grow to be a marriageable man,
a leader of the Raven people.
He had a twin sister, they say,
who was born clean and beautiful.
She was the daughter of Grace and Wealth.
Her skin was neither white, nor yellow,
nor red, blue, black or brown, they said.
Her dark, elongated eyes connected her to the heavens.
They all thought that the two would be parents
to the future of their race.
The children lived in an island forest
on the edge of a great ocean.
They were given all that they might need.
Her father gave to her a cloak
woven from strips of redcedar,
and another made from the downy underfeathers of blue falcons.
Then they sewed for him seal and otter skin armor,
and a pure white skyblanket of the softest wool.
One day, when the two were still quite young
three common crows that were not ravens
were blown to their woods by a far-away storm.
They say the crows gave the boy some treats.
In turn, he told them tales from his ocean and forest.
He had no reason to distrust them.
He believed their words.
He ate their foods and fell asleep.
Then the crows took off their crowskins
and revealed themselves to be three men
dressed in black robes
with square white collars,
wearing round black hats with wide brims.
Each had a great hole in his chest, they say,
and their left limbs were all withered and useless.
They stood watch over the sleeping boy.
When the boy’s sister tried to wake him,
one of the crowmen approached her.
He tried to clutch her, they say.
She slipped through his fingers, they say.
Some say that she was carried to the other world
by blue falcons.
Others say she was taken by a killer whale
to a wooden house at the bottom of the sea,
protected by seals and otters.
The angry crow threw his black hat on the Earth, they say.
All around it seeped a black poison.
The poison, they say, began draining the life out of the land.
There was much death,
great forests began to die.
Then the poison leeched into the sea,
and sickened the creatures of the ocean.
The crowmen took the sleeping boy and went away.
First they destroyed his special clothing.
Then they tried feeding him to the other crows.
They pecked at him, all day, everyday,
never resting, never tiring.
They say they were still angry they couldn’t have the sister.
They say that for many years, they pecked at the boy,
even when he was asleep.
At last they had pecked a great hole in his chest,
in the space between his heart and his mind.
The boy had only three things, they say,
which he could use to fill the hole.
Memory, words, and time.
He had no other belongings.
He put these in the hole,
but after, his head was left strangely empty.
They say he had trouble remembering things.
Things like his beautiful sister, their special forest and the sea.
The boy became unruly and difficult to handle.
So the crowmen tried to fill his mind with their own concoctions.
They tried milk, then sugar and sand, then loveless stories.
They tried alcohol, then tea, and molten copper,
silver and gold.
Nothing held, they say.
It all ran out his ears.
Finally they poured grease into his mind,
which held fast.
But this was all so much trouble for just a little bit of food.
The crowmen grew weary of the boy.
They decided to send him away.
They found him work on the plains, in an oilfield.
They say he could no longer remember much of anything.
Not his beautiful, beloved sister.
Not even his own true name.
Trying not to disturb the down fill, he reached his heavy hand into the unzipped pillow and withdrew the bundled hide from deep within. He picked and brushed away the feathers clinging to the suede wrapping. Once clean, he held the weighty sack in both hands and drew a breath. While the muscles in his face barely moved, his appearance changed dramatically, like when bright outdoor lights are shutdown for the night and the surrounding sky explodes in the new darkness – the constellations, planets, stellar dust and infinite suns crash down from the blackened voids. So too his muted face sparkled.
To the right of his bed was a western nightstand with a small lamp, to the left an unpainted Tsimshian box topped with an oversized slab of redcedar. He placed the bundle on the slab, bowed his head and listened to the night for a prayer. He picked apart with his big fingers the lace knot cinching tight the neck of the bundle. The hide fell open and he smoothed it flat. Nine whale teeth shifted and settled into place. He left them to go bathe.
Some were longer than his broad hand, some quite small. The first was from the rotten carcass of a sperm whale, washed ashore in the Azores; the second, from a pilot whale found stranded in South Africa; the smallest tooth in the collection was a from a beluga trapped in the sea ice near Sanikiluaq, the people and polar bears had a feast that winter; the fourth and fifth teeth came from two beaked whales that had been hunted as a pair by Japanese whalers; the sixth tooth came from a bottlenose that beached itself in the Faroe Islands; the seventh was by far the longest, ten inches, and ornate with many barnacles, pulled from the lower jaw of a strap-toothed whale that died on a shore in southern Brazil; the eighth tooth was from a Cuvier’s that stranded itself on the southern reefs of Moloka‘i, during a US naval sonar exercise; and the ninth and last tooth, just a bit bigger than the beluga’s, was collected three months earlier from a Hector’s beaked whale stranded on a rocky beach in northwestern Tasmania.
He came back to the room, still damp, and lay down on the bed. A compact, white cat leapt from the floor straight to his chest. He startled, but the cat did not. He placed his large hand atop her shoulders, held her flank with his forearm, and let her quiet purrs sink into the center of his chest.
Baby White Cat Face
He knew several facts about the cat, but he did not know her. Her pure white coat, he determined, was the softest thing in the world, a thing so soft he couldn’t think of anything with which to compare it. The cat had one blue eye, one green, but it was more their huge size, not their mismatched colors, that lent her a peculiar, alien appearance: like in a kitten whose eyes take up a greater percentage of the skull, her adult eyes continued to do the same. They cast an expression of engaged curiosity, of a quizzical and affectionate longing.
The cat had lived with him now for almost one year, had as a small kitten walked out of the dark spruce forest beyond the camp straight to where he stood. He knew from the first moment that he saw her that she was deaf. He clapped once just behind her head, setting off a loud echo through the night, but the kitten didn’t flinch. He stared into the forest for quite some time, and then resigned himself: she was his. She was a wild thing and quite athletic, a little runty, loved looking out the window, but once inside his trailer she never went back out. He left the door open and she stood at the threshold sniffing the fresh air and studying the sights, but never again crossed over. Nor did he ever force her out.
He believed her deafness to be a major factor in why she had no name. If she could not hear the name, could it really be her name? Must a cat hear its name to have a name? He understood that inanimate objects had names – like hammer, screwdriver, bench, tree – and he could easily call her something, give her a label in sound, a name for human identification purposes only, not indicative of personality, bond, or rapport. The name of a cat is intended to be more: an agreement; the basic sound note of the relationship; a conditioned beginning to a longer conversation. It was as if she existed in a parallel universe: even though she lived right here with him, she truly resided in another – the soundlessness of her world at once a wall and a catalyst for twisting perception. Or as if she could cross to this world, insulated and protected by her deafness, whereas the hearing animals on the other side could not. He thought about naming her Baby White Cat Face – Baby, to indicate his affection for her, White Cat, not needing explanation, and Face, he did not know why, really, other than because perhaps it seemed she was showing him only a mask, that some deeper, more complete self lay unrevealed behind her outward appearance.
Still purring on his chest, she at last relented, rolled and took hold of his forearm with both her paws, returning his hug. He could feel a few of her hairs bothering his cheeks. He closed his eyes, and focused all his attention on the feeling. Soon, the sensation was just a sensation, no longer an irritation. Then slowly, gradually, he began to feel as if the hairs were his, sprouting from his cheeks, as if her coat was becoming his. The whale teeth on his bedside altar rattled. Without warning she bit deep into the meat of his hand and drew tighter her hold on his arm. When he tried to pull away, she sunk her claws into his flesh and clamped down harder with her jaws, as if delivering a final kill to her prey. In response, he pushed his hand deeper into her mouth and she slid off his chest onto the bed, but she held fast, still clamping with teeth and claw.
He pushed down on her jaw until it yielded. His hand, functioning as if independent from his mind, slid lower and found her throat. He closed his fingers around her neck and her skin drew back across her face. Her large eyes bulged, mouth open, lips drawn back. He squeezed tighter, and felt her thin windpipe sink into the muscles of his hand. The feeling startled him, perhaps as much as it had the cat, but he did not let go. He wondered quickly if he had already done damage to her soft little neck; knew if he increased the pressure just a little, it would probably kill her. The power to control himself seemed to float somewhere outside his body.
He let her go. She lay quiet for a few moments, then sprang off the bed and ran to the other room. After that she had trouble using her litter box. He found accidents in several corners of the trailer, in unpacked grocery bags, and in boxes of old tools. She grew more wild and frenetic in her play. He realized how fragile her trust was, and wondered if her deafness increased its fragility, lacking as she did the world of sounds from which to draw warnings and information.
She never stopped resting atop his chest. That part of their bond was still intact. He took extra care to always be gentle with her. He regretted that he had hurt her – he felt as if he had created in her the very same wounds that floated, unhealing, within him.
The mess hall was a muted, early morning cacophony of deep murmurs and clattering flatware. Two men sat with their trays at the end of his table and nodded, morning.
Soon the room quieted, the noise of the hall smothered as if it had retreated to a distance. In the new space, messages filtered toward the man.
He saw a scene in black and white, as if he were looking at an ancient photograph, a wide beach in oblique light, a glass eddy in a cove, a floating carcass offshore marked by standing gulls.
By the time the vision retreated, the two men were gone, the mess nearly empty. Outside his crew was waiting on him, standing around their truck. With a lift of his head he told them to go on without him. “You sure?” the driver called. He nodded once in response, turned and walked back to his trailer.
He packed some spare clothes and toiletries into a small leather satchel. He looked at the pillow and thought about bringing the teeth. They needed to come. Baby White Cat Face began to howl as he fished the bundle from the down pillow. She climbed into his satchel and burrowed her head into his folded clothes. When he tried to lift her from it she wiggled free, leapt to his shoulder and clung on with her claws. He sat and stroked her till she fell asleep. Then he set her on the bed, grabbed his bag and moved quickly out the door. While he fumbled for his truck keys, he felt her howling begin. He looked up and saw her pawing at the kitchen window, her little mouth opening and closing in a series of silent yells.
In the foreman’s office he placed the keys to his trailer atop the blotter.
“Leaving us again, Vic?”
“I’ll watch yer things for ya. And your cat.”
“Aright then. Where you headed this time?”
“Haida Gwaii,” he said. “Haida Gwaii.”
Prince Rupert, BC Ferries
He left camp by 830 AM on Wednesday and had to drive straight through to Prince Rupert to catch the Thursday morning ferry. The next boat after that wouldn’t leave till Sunday night and by then the whale would be gone. A few hours after nightfall, the moving shadows of his headlights began transforming into rearing animals, great and small, and he knew pure stamina could only carry him so far. He pulled over to rest, woke after two hours and began driving again.
At 7AM he reached the ferry terminal and parked his truck in the queue for boarding. A few other people sat in their vehicles. He walked to the terminal to see about a ticket. The waiting room was open and a few old hippies were sleeping on benches, but the ticket office was boarded closed. Without thinking, he picked up an information brochure on Prince Rupert, and went back out to his car. He figured he’d wait till someone showed up, and to pass the time began reading,
The Northwest Coast of America came to European attention during the Age of Discovery, when Spain, England and Russia all competed to expand their influence in the Pacific. It was trade that brought Europeans into direct and lasting contact with the First Nations. At first British and American ships visited in search of prized sea otter pelts, but eventually the Hudson Bay Company expanded its territory to include permanent trading posts. The newcomers saw that the real wealth here was salmon, the bounty of the sea that formed the foundation of the First Nations’ lifeways…
The city of Prince Rupert, incorporated in 1910, was named after the founder of the Hudson Bay Company, Rupert, Count Palatine of the Rhine, Duke of Bavaria, First Duke of Cumberland, First Earl of Holderness, Royal Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter (KG), Privy Counsellor of His Majesty’s Most Honorable Privy Council (PC), Fellow of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (FRS), commonly called Prince Rupert of the Rhine. (In German, our Prince is called, Ruprecht Pfalzgraf bei Rhein, Herzog von Bayern, Ruprecht von Wittelsbach.)
His tired eyes drifted through the words, lost themselves and surrendered to sleep.
A man in dark wraparound shades rapped a knuckle on his truck and waved him forward. He woke and saw the ramp to the ferry down for boarding. He lowered his window to ask about a ticket, but the man didn’t seem to hear and just motioned him on. He figured he’d have to purchase his fare on board. The crew directed him into the port-most row of cars, signaled him to stop and park, chocked his wheels, and moved on to do the same for the car behind. He grabbed his bag and followed the other passengers up the metal stairs to the passenger decks. A bit later, a horn sounded three times and slowly began to creep from the dock. The ship’s captain welcomed the new passengers aboard the MV Northern Prospector, discussed the weather, and estimated an eight-hour passage to Skidegate. The man watched as Port Rupert and the BC coast faded into the mist. Within minutes, all around, in every direction, there was only fog and open ocean.
One Chinese Family
They stood out from the rest of the fishermen, carpenters, hippies, tradesmen and Canadian tourists. In their fine casual clothes and relaxed postures, they looked wealthy, as if they were somehow culled from the ranks of the Shanghai elite and dropped randomly into the lounge of the MV Northern Explorer. The father wore his gold teeth with dignity, the mother exuded class from the structure of her bones. Their daughter, who appeared to be in her early twenties, was tall and shapely, with a plain, cute, somewhat boyish face, and skin marked by recent acne. A Leica M9 hung from her neck, and she looked around for subjects to photo, checked various views through the rangefinder, but didn’t end up finding anything worthy of even a digital click.
He was trying to find someone from whom he could purchase his unpaid fare. In the Prospector’s Lounge, he asked two crewmembers, the first of which shrugged as if he could not understand the question; the second directed him to the ferry terminal ticket office in Skidegate. “No, for this trip,” he said. But the man just moved on without listening.
He sat in one of the beige leather seats, placed his satchel on his lap, and leaned back and closed his eyes. A voice interrupted him, “Mom wanted to fly, but I insisted we take the ferry. Crossing water is just so cool! It’s like we’re voyaging to another world.” He looked up at her; she didn’t seem to care that he’d rather be sleeping. She smelled of an expensive plum perfume.
“Can I take your picture?” She held up her camera. “Over there, outside, by the rail. Out in the wind and the mist?” She waited. “Please, I’ll make you look really cool. I’ll even send you a copy.”
He did not answer.
“No? Why not?” She looked into his eyes. “Well, I don’t know you, that’s true. But I can get to know you, right? We have like eight hours or something.”
He turned away.
“Okay, I get it. How about this? What if I tell you a story. You can close your eyes and sleep if you want, I don’t care. In exchange for my story, you let me take your picture?”
“What kind of story?”
“Ah! He talks! I will tell you an old Chinese tale, about a huge, ferocious dog that marries a princess. Interested?” She turned to meet her mother’s disapproving glare from across the lounge. “Mom, I live in Vancouver, I’ve talked to Indians before,” she called across the cabin. Her mother turned away, furious. “Yuck. She thinks quiet is polite but she is not polite at all.” She sighed. “What tribe are you anyway?”
He met her eye and shook his head.
“Anyway, do we have a deal?”
He nodded, yes. “First tell me what you folks are doing on a ferry to Haida Gwaii.”
“Father will buy a whole fleet of fishing boats. He will sell fish to the highest bidders. Knowing Father, he will not stop there. Soon he will build a resort, maybe a golf course, I don’t know.”
He shook his head. “It never ends.”
She ignored him. “Shake.” She extended her hand. He looked down at the gold Cartier ring on her middle finger, then slowly up, studying for a moment her necklace of fine braided pine root binding a slim jade dagger. The twine lace made for it a woven grip.
He put his hand out, but he did not take hers. He left his palm facing up at a slight angle. She saw this and looked from his hand up into his eyes. For all her forward brashness, something in her was still quite fragile.
“I am not afraid,” she said, in spite of herself. She took his hand with hers. He closed his fingers. She looked up into his eyes. “We have a deal.”
“Yes. We do.”
They were still holding hands.
“Please tell me your story.”
Before the time when there was a China,
when there was only the land that is now called China,
and small tribes of every race scattered about,
There was a sovereign, a king in the making,
And he was good, they say.
His name was Di Ku, 帝嚳.
The White Emperor, ancestral name, Gāoxīn Shì.
He was one of the Five Emperors
of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors.
Great-grandson to the Yellow Emperor, 黃帝.
Di Ku had only one daughter
And no sons.
She was everything to him.
And no one could deny:
what she lacked in physical beauty,
she possessed tenfold in the radiance of her heart.
She was sweet, kind and lovely.
She came to be seen as the hope of all humanity.
We have now lost her private name,
but the public knew her as Princess,
as Gong Zhu.
Nevertheless, they say the other tribes always resisted.
Di Ku could not unite them.
Each tribe wanted what the other tribes had:
Land, crops, riches.
A great war erupted,
everyone took sides.
The warriors set fire to the land and villages.
Di Ku did not believe man was meant to live at peace.
He believed it was man’s nature to war and seek domination,
that we survive through violence,
are perpetuated by blood and death.
He fought to secure the future of his people.
Opposed to Di Ku’s rule was a mighty chieftain.
His true name has been forgotten,
so he is called after his tribe, Rong Wu.
His skill on the battlefield remains legendary.
No one could ever defeat him.
When Rong Wu’s forces were pressed to near-breaking,
he himself would wade through the lines.
Acting alone he could turn the tide of battle.
Like a flooded river escaping its banks,
he could wash clean a field of foes.
Di Ku had but one choice:
he offered as a prize
to the one that brought him Rong Wu’s head,
the right to marry his beloved daughter.
Now some say that Di Ku had a great dragon dog,
that had grown from a silk worm
that lived for three years in his wife’s ear.
Others say that the dog belonged to one of his generals.
In one way all the accounts agree:
this dog, named Panhu, was a giant, vicious beast.
He was so violent and brutal, no one could tend to him.
He lived for months on end alone in the wilderness.
His black coat was long and matted.
He smelled of blood and death.
He was all animal power,
through and through, unmitigated.
Some say Panhu heard Di Ku’s promise.
Some say he was always in love with Gong Zhu,
that he was born to protect her.
When Rong Wu joined the fray,
Panhu did not hesitate.
As you can guess, Rong Wu didn’t stand a chance.
Panhu killed him straight away,
and tore his head clean from his body
with one violent shake.
A great cheer rose from the warriors, they say.
The rout was on.
A general approached and stooped to pick up the head.
He planned to present it to Di Ku
and claim Gong Zhu for his bride.
Panhu raised his lip to expose his dripping fangs.
The general ordered him away.
When Panhu held his ground,
the general drew his sword.
The fight lasted only an instant.
Panhu tore the man’s throat out
and rolled in his spilling blood.
No one else challenged Panhu for the head.
It was done.
Later that day, Panhu presented the head to Di Ku.
They say he spoke in a human voice:
I will have my prize, the princess Gong Zhu.
I ask you for her hand in marriage,
as you yourself have promised.
Di Ku did not know what to do.
How could he give his only daughter to this beast?
But how could he break his word?
Finally, in private, Gong Zhu spoke to her father.
Father, they say she said. Please keep your word.
Maintain your honor.
I will find a way.
So he ordered his servants to prepare a great wedding banquet.
He ordered ten courses, they say.
Shark’s fin, abalone, fish roe in soup, sea cucumber,
Squab, lobster, swift nests, roast whole duck,
Sweet lotus seed and lily bulb,
and a whole suckling pig.
Gong Zhu solicited the help of her chief attendant.
Together, they hatched a plan.
The wedding ceremony went as expected.
The whole kingdom came out to see the procession:
their beloved Gong Zhu and her beastly groom Panhu.
At the temple, Gong Zhu approached Panhu for the first time.
She was terrified but continued.
I must pin this flower to your robes, sir.
But since you haven’t a robe,
I have prepared this silken sash.
She laced the sash about him,
marking an ‘X’ across his chest.
Then she tied it at the back of his neck.
By weaving in some strands of vetiver grass
she made a magic knot.
To this sash she pinned a fragrant lotus flower,
and said to him,
With this lotus flower I give to you
my softness, purity and loveliness,
so that they will forever be yours.
After the festivities, she prepared her bedchamber,
adorning the room with silk cloth
and special fragrances distilled from rose and zhīzi flowers.
Last, she oiled her skin with ylang ylang,
dressed in her bridal robes,
and hid a jade dagger under her blouse.
When he entered her bedchamber,
the effect was immediate.
His wedding sash began to tighten.
All the flower smells robbed him of his will.
The princess, Gong Zhu, approached him from behind.
He could not sense her there for all the flowers and strange smells.
She took hold of him lightly,
and whispered in his ear:
You came here to take me as your prize,
but really I will take you as mine.
The jade dagger was at his throat.
The silk harness grew tighter and tighter.
Panhu howled into the night.
When he smelled his own blood, however,
every spell that Gong Zhu cast
all failed at once.
They say his blood was rich in dark magic.
He burst free of the silk harness –
The lotus flower erupted.
In an instant he was on top of her,
and had her fragile throat gripped in his slathering jaws.
The remainder of her will vanished as he mounted her.
In a final instant of clarity she realized,
she still held the jade dagger.
Without thinking, she thrust it into the center of his belly,
and sliced upwards all the way to the bottom of his chin.
Panhu didn’t flinch or yield.
She reached right inside of him,
searching for his beating heart
with her hands
and with the knife.
Instead she found another body waiting in the dog.
She undressed this body from the dogskin.
A man came out.
His body was beautiful,
all hairless and glowing.
Instantly she fell in love.
But the Princess could not undress his head.
Forever he kept his dogface and doghead.
So while her father worked to unify humanity
and quell the tribes by use of law and force
Gong Zhu and Panhu moved to the mountains
to live in privacy and seclusion.
Panhu and Gong Zhu parented many children.
From these children sprang all the varied tribes of China,
all new ethnicities to replace those lost in her father’s wars.
The many peoples of China – to this day –
still wear doghead crowns
to honor and remember their great ancestor, Panhu.
And so my story is told.
After some time, he spoke. “Let me guess,” he said, looking her in the eye. “You wear that jade necklace to defend yourself from dogs.”
“This is a story from the world we leaving and the world that is coming. It contains poison, but also, magic. The jade knife is for you,” she said. She lifted it off her neck and held it out to him by the lace.
“Now,” she smiled brightly, “photo time!”
He knew where he had to go.
In a minute he was out of Skidegate. He’d driven for close to 40 minutes then began to slow. The forest to either side of the truck was mostly scrub pine and spruce. From the road he could not see the section of old forest between him and the shore. He backed his truck into a gap in the pine, just off the shoulder. Using the slant of the grey evening light to guide him, he began to make his way toward the shore.
The old forest rose up like a dark wall. He didn’t want to enter it – he wanted only to get to the sea beyond. Heavy moss carpeted mounds of earth, the withering stumps of departed trees, dead falls and boulders, making them all a mass of roiling green. The giant trunks of what must have been redcedar, hemlock, and alder, and the green-black spaces between them, stood like the spirits of a very lost and foreign past. He looked down at his tattered engineer boots and studied how the thick sphagnum seemed to be swallowing him. He had to keep moving.
He heard a pair of peregrine calling back and forth, but he never saw them. Twice he thought he saw movement in the corner of his eye, but when he turned his head nothing was there. He had the distinct feeling he was being watched, or at least that the forest was quite aware of his presence. He resisted the continual urge to sit and stop moving, fighting against the great weariness of the place. He needed to get to shore before dark. This stretch of woods can’t be very wide, he thought. A half mile at most – or at least so it seemed from the road.
He kept walking. Two more times he thought he saw movement in the corner of his eye, and both times when he turned, nothing was there. Otherwise the forest was locked in an immense stillness that resisted his every step.
Finally, the light in the spaces between the trees began to grow brighter. He picked up his pace and moments later he emerged onto the bluff.
The forest ended at the edge of the cliff.
One could step between two trees and drop off
to the rocks below.
From the bluffs the scene looked as if it were printed in silver gelatin.
It was a wide crescent of beach contained by distant promontories,
hazy light grey sand cut by mirrors of ocean,
silent water draining from the land.
It was not empty.
Many figures stood in silence.
They all appeared black from a distance,
like sculpted crows.
Closer to the water laid the carcass of a killer whale
surrounded by gulls and shorebirds.
Its black skin shined around craters of red.
Its white skin merged with the grey sand.
The whale slumped,
He made his way down to the beach.
The others did not see him.
They had been dispatched from their offices in Seattle and Vancouver. Canadian federal officials and biologists, a few American scientists, and two members of the tribal government. He didn’t know how they got there, or the path they’d taken to reach the beach.
A public relations leaflet distributed by an environmental nonprofit, titled, “Killer Whale Carcass on Haida Gwaii,” stuck in the sand near his feet.
Killer whales are living repositories for PCBs. Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) are a class of man-made chemicals that were used widely in electrical components and insulating fluids before being banned in the United States in the late 1970s, and internationally by the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. They are classified as a virulent carcinogen and display other toxic effects including immunosuppression, neurotoxicity, and endocrine and hormonal disruption.
PCBs are highly soluble in fat, and once ingested by whales accumulate in fatty blubber. Orcas, situated at the pinnacle of the food chain –with a diet of seal, sea otter, and Chinook salmon –ingest PCBs with every meal. Female orcas rid themselves of approximately 70 percent of their accumulated PCBs through childbirth and through the provision of their fatty milk – unfortunately, whatever they themselves shed, their offspring must carry for them. Firstborn calves, in particular, tend to die prematurely. Reproduction and nursing as a means of excretion. Male orcas simply accumulate with no means to excrete. Male lifespan is reduced from about 60-70 years in uncontaminated individuals to approximately 30 years. Female lifespans are reduced to about 50 years, from an estimated 80-90. PCBs accumulate at an accelerated pace post-menopause – when females have lost the ability to excrete the poison – wreaking havoc on their aging bodies.
Symptoms of PCB toxicity include hormonal changes and imbalances, decreased sperm count, higher susceptibility to disease, decreased birth and infant viability rates, and so on. Sociological impacts are great too: mature individuals once thought to be guides and leaders within a pod are no longer present to help pass knowledge on to younger generations.
Scientists and governments have adopted special protocols for handling orca carcasses. If they were left to rot and be scavenged on the beach, the PCBs stored in their flesh would simply reenter the food chain. Burial at specialized toxic waste facilities is the preferred method of disposal. In rare cases (like these), when a carcass washes up on a remote and sparsely populated island, the task of safe disposal becomes significantly more challenging. People must take great precaution when handling the whale flesh – either in disposal activities or for scientific purposes. Concentration levels of PCBs in most orca flesh are high enough to be carcinogenic.
He needed a tooth.
He walked down the bluff and out on to the beach.
There was no cover or hope of cover.
He walked slowly, but with purpose.
He began to see the faces inside the hooded parkas.
Mostly they stared off toward land,
the smell silencing them.
A few townspeople had gathered,
to watch and to supervise.
There were murmurs of a backhoe,
a wrecker and a flatbed semi.
The officials had established a perimeter,
a line of yellow tape to keep the public away –
convincing themselves of their authority –
though no one could bear the stench.
He reached the yellow tape and
waited to be met by one of the officials.
He waved to one that appeared to be staring right at him
but the man either didn’t see or
After some time, he ducked under the line.
He wrapped his black wool scarf
around his face.
The whale’s lips rose up from the sand,
black upper and white lower,
a sensitive vertical smile,
lips that look like they could talk
Her crazed skin like an ancient map,
drying in the misty air
taut and cratered in red
against the bloating flesh inside.
He took his time.
He tried to find a way to breath
but could not.
He examined the length of her
to the remnant grace in the lines of her tail.
He kept himself between her and the ocean.
Finally he walked back to her head,
and took hold of a lower incisor.
He wedged his hand painfully into the space
between the teeth,
his gripped fist disregarded.
He put all his weight to it.
He drove the center of himself
right up through his hand
gasping held breath.
Finally he felt it rock in the socket.
Urged on by the movement,
he threw himself at the whale.
Again and again,
till his arm grew wet with her slime.
The tooth rocking only the slightest bit,
his trapped breath burning in his lungs.
He released a terrible cry,
An awful holler sucked away by the wind,
welled tears ran down his cheeks.
The cold wet sand gulped seawater around him.
A rush of ocean filled his shoes.
He leaned back and pulled weakly,
The whale’s jaw split all at once –
a wet staccato of bone parting flesh.
He fell flat on his back,
and was instantly soaked,
but lay there gripping a tooth.
One conical ivory incisor
in mauve bedding.
He scoured what he could
of the remnant blood and gristle
with slurried sand and ocean.
Then he wrapped the clean wet tooth
in a white linen handkerchief,
trudged back through the crowd,
soaked and beaten, and
A Path Through the Dunes
The long twilight didn’t look like it would hold and he didn’t want to make his way back through those woods. He decided to find another way to the road, perhaps along the route the scientists had taken. He saw what looked like a path through the dunes, near where the cliffs tapered to the beach.
His wet boots began to collect a heavy layer of sand and he kicked them as he walked. Soon he was inside the dunes, out of view of the beach. Large mounds of sand shaped like rolling waves sprouted seagrass that rustled in the breeze. He thought of the teeth, all the teeth he carried, and it felt to him the new one needed the company of the others. The smell of the dead whale collected here and there in cool, dense pockets. Soon he stopped and looked around and didn’t know how long he’d been walking, if the dune mounds to either side of him were the same ones from different angles or another set altogether. In the deepening grey mist he found no sign up or down to guide his direction. He tried to keep the surf sounds to his right but they taunted him like an echo, as if the dunes were cochlea in a giant nautilus whispering ‘ocean’ from every direction. A peregrine called out from the invisible sky.
The last of the daylight seeped into the grass and sand. The cold of his wet clothes and feet hung on him like an iron suit. He mumbled sorrowful sounds under his breath, over and over. The weight of his light pack became almost too much to bear. A useless errand in a useless life.
He plodded on for many hours, till his pained numbness gave way to stubborn resignation. Then, finally, the dunes gave way to an open, starless sky, to a wide and wild shore of crashing blackness. Next to him lay a slumbering presence, a giant branched timber perhaps, hidden in the dark. He unshouldered his pack, collapsed shivering into the sand. He woke at dawn with an all white cat pressed to the center of his chest. He spoke to her in a language he did not know and she began to purr.
He sat up, shifting her to his lap, and looked into her mismatched blue and green eyes.
“Baby,” he greeted her.
Next to him lay the giant, lichen crusted skeleton of a blue whale, stretching out sixty feet or more in either direction.
He opened his pack and removed the bundle, cold leathery fingers pulling at the taut knot till it gave. He spread the hide on the sand and the teeth settled and sifted to rest. He found the new orca tooth, unwrapped it from its white linen shroud, and placed it with the other nine. Ten now. He felt complete, like he knew where he was, or like he was now there inside himself, as if he had gathered the long lost parts of himself together along with the teeth. The cat’s purrs grew stronger against his legs.
He wanted to reach out to touch one of the huge, arcing blue whale ribs, but before he could the cat snapped and bit down on his cold left hand. He pulled back but she grabbed on with her paws, hugged his arm to her chest and sank her claws into the back of his wrist. He tried to push her off, remembering to be gentle, but in response, as if she sensed vulnerability, she bit viciously, broke skin and tried to tear the flesh off his index finger.
At the sight of his own blood, and from the shock of the pain, he lost himself again. He grabbed hold of her head and neck and mouth however he could and drove her back into the sand. She scrabbled against him in a wild panic trying either to kill or flee. His fee hand gripped hard the braided pine root handle of the jade knife, and he thrust it between her kicking hind legs. It slid straight into her soft warm belly.
Their violent spell was not broken. He drew the knife upward towards her chest, and its edge found the notch between her ribs and sternum. It took hardly any effort at all, the blade easing itself up till it met the butt of his other hand and the cat stopped moving and the two released each other. He slid back. Her head was buried in the sand. He looked at her dead, wrecked body, strangely calm.
The Council of Whales
Inside the cat something moved. At first he thought it was the final pumping of her blood, or the spilling of her organs, or both. He looked at the sand around her.
When he looked up a woman’s body was climbing out of the catskin. First her feet and legs came out, one by one, then an arm and a hand pulled free from each paw. Last she pulled the white fur skin from her head, and her black hair poured out after it.
There was a woman standing there, naked, slick with blood. Her dark, elongated eyes glittered in the grey light.
She reached back into the catskin and withdrew its inner skin, a long cloak of woven redcedar. She used it to scrub herself, and after she was clean and warm, she wrapped it about her shoulders. Its bottom edge just grazed the sand around her feet.
Next she rubbed the catskin between her hands until it flattened and smoothed itself. She rubbed and rubbed.
She approached him and wrapped the catskin around his shoulders. It was a skyblanket now, of the softest pure white fur. He handed her the jade knife. With its tip she traced a gentle line from the notch at the base of his skull up over the centerline of his head, all the way to the space between his eyes.
Melted grease poured out of his ears. She scoured it away first with sand, then with her cloak. Then she handed him the knife and spoke to him in a foreign tongue. She was deaf she told him. He knew what to do.
One by one, he traced a gentle line across the surface of each of the ten whale teeth, from base to tip and back to base.
One by one, from out of the dunes, ten whales emerged, upright like men, moving through the air. First came a giant sperm whale with a head like a club and a small sliver of lower jaw. Then a white beluga ambled out with a curious little smile. Two beaked whales came next, then a bottlenose looking stoic. The strap toothed followed them. It had a beautiful pattern of black and white markings and looked on land to be somehow a cross between seal and porpoise. The Cuvier’s and Hector’s whales walked out to the beach together, like fleshen torpedoes, especially the Cuvier’s whose snout was much shorter. Last came the orca, the killer from the beach, and all the others made space for her – even the giant sperm whale appeared wary. She bowed to them all, and they all bowed back. Then the orca bowed to the woman, and after returning a formal bow to the orca, she grasped the man’s hand and led him away to the shore to gather driftwood for a fire.
The ten whales sat all in a circle near the skull of the giant blue whale, as if they were discussing something, but all were silent. After the man and woman returned with several armloads of wood, she started a small fire in the center of their circle. The orca offered each a block of seal meat, and they accepted. They roasted it on sticks.
Each whale told a tale from his or her ocean, tales of their families, past and present. The man and the woman listened, rapt, feeling with each word how it was to be alive inside the sea.
He was given a small piece of seal meat, but he did not eat.
When the others finished with their stories, the orca bowed again to them all, then to the woman once more.
There is a hole in him, the orca said to her.
Yes. The crows shaped him in their likeness.
You returned to him his skyblanket.
He is not dead though.
No, he is alive.
You will not leave without him.
You cannot stay.
I know, she said, trembling.
But now we all can finally go.
Yes. He has freed us.
It is time then.
She rose and began to rub the blue whale skeleton with her redcedar cloak. Slowly, as the lichen sloughed off, the bones began arranging and re-arranging themselves. Soon the giant skeleton sat in the shape of a great canoe, its mammoth skull a terrible prow.
A peregrine falcon, in a screaming dive, pulled up at the very last moment, hovered on extended wings, and landed sweetly on the forward tip of the skull bow. There it stood sentinel, the protector.
Brother, the woman said to him. It is time to go.
IT IS TIME TO GO
He wanted nothing more than to just be with her.
He was so happy just to be with her.
Without the grease in his head
he felt fragile and empty.
He could see now
the great hole in his chest.
His memory and words began spilling out of it.
He witnessed all this.
Then she held him,
and they stood
in the sand and
wrapped each other in their cloaks.
Are we really leaving? He whispered.
To the other world.
But I am still alive.
Yes. She cried.
She shook her head, uncertain.
We must all go. We will not return.
The skeleton canoe began moving down the beach
toward the ocean.
One by one, the whale spirits all took their places in it.
When it reached the sea, the orca called her.
We are leaving.
They walked together, brother and sister,
down to the water’s edge.
Waves crashed there, and it was difficult to hear.
He helped her into the canoe.
She stood in her cloak behind the sentinel falcon.
It was her blue-feather skyblanket, he knew.
She reached for him.
He took her hand.
The canoe kept traveling
further and further
into the sea.
They say he never climbed into the canoe
that it sailed away without him.
They say he sat for a long, long time,
alone upon that beach,
wrapped in his pure white skyblanket.
On the ferry ride back to Prince Rupert,
all he could hear was the drone
of diesel engines.
They say a young Chinese girl sat down next to him.
They say he told her a story about ten whale teeth.
They say he returned to her
her jade dagger.
They say she kissed him once and fell asleep.
And so the story is told.