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Foreword:
This story is fiction framed in ethnology.

First published by Altair Magazine of Australia, which no longer exists.  The illustration was scanned from the magazine. Updated in 2010 to honor the Vancouver community, whose Canadian and First Nations societies evoked great beauty - a Navajo ideal; Navajo (Di’neh) being the ancient cultural cousins to the Nootka prior to an epic migration from the Vancouver region to the desert SW USA - with the totems and other symbols and artisans of human hope despite it all.

The story is based on the surrealistic world view and social hierarchy of native Nootka, and despite its fantasy and sci-fi plot, scientifically reflects the totem story-telling feature - including the disease borne interactions of Anglo Saxons centuries ago and current climate change issues - symbolically expressed in the opening ceremonies in Vancouver, for the Winter Olympics of 2010. The mythological and economic concepts introduced in the story also reflect that ancient Nootka world view, and is derived at in modern times through a sci-fi mechanism with as little cultural relativism as a Dane can attempt.

***

Lightning had struck near the house but there had been no rain, no wind. No warning. Just a heavy, dripping, moist air with clouds that weren't really clouds. The stuff of weather that made you squint your eyes though the sun remained concealed.

Weather Dr. Dave Polani's native forebears had enjoyed for millennia.

Dave sat back in his Mercedes and thought about the morning. Even his wife of thirteen years — blond-haired and very non-indigenous — had seemed out of sorts. Swallowing hard, he reached into his suit, pulled it out, and inspected the carved bit of black stone his son, Bobby, had found while playing at the end of the road. He shook his head, muttering something in Wakashan, and turned the key. The Mercedes clattered to life in a cloud of black smoke. He sucked his lower lip reflectively, closed his eyes, hearing the dull clacking of the diesel motor, and sighed.

There was a sudden tapping on his window. A muscular man with Dave's raven hair and aboriginal features looked down on him, grinning.

Dave smiled, stepped out, saw the Porsche and said, "Arthur! Glad to see you."

"Same, man. Same. Quite a lightning strike this morning, eh? Sounded like it hit my house."

Dave nodded. "Thought it hit mine." He gave his yard and house a cursory glance. "Nothing to see."

The little totem slipped from his fingers to the pavement.

"Hey, what's this?" Arthur picked it up.

"Bobby found it by the stop sign yesterday."

"No shit! Looks old. –Authentic."

"It's ours. Nootka. Somebody's story's on it."

Arthur's eyes widened. "Figure it out?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "A shaman's spirits being flown around by... Here—" He brought it closer. "See the Thunderbird. It's got a couple of his spirits in its claws."

"'-'Kay," slowly said Arthur, trying to sound intelligent. "But—" and he placed a pudgy finger midway down the five-inch totem. "What about the bear? And this Orca?"

"This kind of totem's significant just to the storyteller. You've got to already know the story to figure it out. Oral tradition and all."

"Hey," said Arthur, thinking of something non-academic, "I don't think that stop sign was such a good idea."

"Well... you know... liability?"

"Just kind of makes our neighborhood too... too... urban. Too ... Anglo."

"Look who's talking." Dave eyed the Porsche.

"Geez...." His oval eyes squinted hard, evoking the deeper shadows of his bloodline.


Dave grasped his friend's arm. "We can still hold back on this latest sale."

"Why'd we ever first sell?"

"What's done is done. Let's learn from it. You know, invest in the future. That sort of thing."

"Can't complain, can I?" --eying the Porsche. "Damn..."

"Well, we... we can't live in the past."

"Easy for you to say. You teach our history in Vancouver."

They stared into each other’s eyes for a long moment, and then hugged like two bears. Quickly, lest they soon be judged by prying eyes, they separated.

Dave followed the Porsche down the street, passing the tall conifers lining the front lawns of new brick mansions. Moss still clung to many of the trees, as in their rain-forest heyday.

The sun seemed ready to break out but Dave knew that wouldn't happen until much later in the afternoon, if at all. His thoughts returned to the bizarre lightning strike while waiting for the traffic to give way on Provincial Avenue.

He looked to the stop sign, then to the tiny pile of dirt by its post. Ready to step on the gas, another car came into sight. Trees and ornamental hedges blocked a clear view from either direction.

He glanced out his left window and saw the new, corner-lot neighbors. A forty'ish woman and a young girl walked a Great Dane. They smiled at him. He waved back. He couldn't remember their names.

The totem lying on the passenger seat drew his attention. Then, awkwardly, a haunting, bird-like cry — whether from his mind or in the distant sky, he couldn't tell — echoed in the car. Sudden sweat beaded his brow. The diesel's dull rattling slowly faded, giving way to a gentler sound, like frothing surf retreating from a pebbly shore. The dirt where his son had found the totem called out to him.

Mesmerized, the screaming getting louder, he stepped out of the car and walked to the sign, clenching the totem now in his sweaty palm. The woman walking the dog stared at him. He paid her no heed and knelt by the dirt, and grasped a handful of the moist brown earth only to let it fall between his fingers.

The screaming of the bird spun his mind. His fingers tingled. Numbness flowed downward from his head. A bright light swirled in front of him, burning away reality, the clouds. Even fear. Movement seemed discontinuous, like a movie projector slowly coming to a stop, frame by clicking frame. Then, like being yanked by a water ski line, he felt himself accelerating through a misty horizon with guttural voices resounding from an approaching distance.

Everything shifted. He was falling. Like a feather in the wind.

He closed his eyes.

His mind, his thoughts, his very soul felt different. An absorbing, disquieting peace blanketed him. Only briefly did he wonder where the woman with the child and dog had gone.

He kept his eyes tightly shut, sensing a coolness and dampness on bare skin. He felt the totem grasped in his right hand. His other hand held a pebble-filled ceremonial rattle. The thick scent of pine smoke filled his nostrils — as did earth, sweat and half cooked meat. Familiarity gushed forward, washing away challenging thoughts. He opened his eyes, finding himself seated inside a longhouse.

Daylight streamed through cracks between the old logs of the longhouse, streaking the smoky air and giving it form. He blinked when he saw the dozen near-naked men sitting as they chanted an incantation over a central fire. When they stopped, and eyed him expectantly, he knew just what to do.

He rose and did a hurried dance, jumping four times over a log within the longhouse.

It came back to him, in bits and pieces. When he looked at the totem in his hand, there was no doubt. Aspects of the totem, representing the conclusion of the story, were yet to be carved. Sweat scattered from his glistening body and long, ebony hair. His fever had broken and the spots on his skin were almost gone. The other medicine men joined in the dance, recreating his journey home from the strange world that had trapped him. Four times they repeated the dance. Finally, they scrubbed themselves raw with cedar chips.

The powerful flash of the Thunderbird's eyes erupted outside, setting the smoke in the longhouse into stark shadow-relief. The anticipated clap of its wings rolled against hills and trees. They sat, grasping each others' shoulders and stared into the fire's final flames. Each mumbled a heartfelt prayer of thanks to the great bird. The totem was affectionately passed between them and then cradled in an oyster dish full of tiny bones.

They filed out of the ceremonial lodge. Hawk-in-the-Wind ran up and affectionately rubbed his nose, then enveloped his massive and sweaty torso with her arms and naked breasts. Her lip plug glistened in the thin light of the overcast afternoon. The sound of yapping dogs and playing children echoed against the tall conifers and totems.

But there was a sadness in her eyes. "Our son has lost a soul."

He looked to her bravely. "My soul was stolen. I still remember the strange land of the white ghosts whose totems—" and he briefly smiled. "—live in a flat leather pouch kept tightly here..." And he patted her buttocks. "But here I am, complete once more."

She followed by his side as he walked to their family lodge. Bearclaw-in-the-Bark, his matrilineal grandfather, sat in a corner, humming and washing the affected infant, every motion ritually repeated four times. All his other matrilineal relations were busy cooking or watching.

The spots on his son's skin angered him. "The bastard white ghosts from the east! I spit on them! This is their sign once more."

The old, wrinkled man looked up and with a quavering voice said, "You, of all people, should know never to curse at the spirits."

"I have never heard of such soul-thieving spirits," he retaliated.

But he quickly mellowed and approached his son. Placing a hand on the child's flat brow, he felt the fire of a distressed soul burning within.

Hawk-in-the-Wind tried feeding salmon down the child's throat, careful not to offend the spirits by dropping it, only cutting the fish with an oyster shell edge. In the distance, the Thunderbird again sparked his eyes and explosively flapped his wings.

That evening, as he and Hawk-in-the-Wind cuddled for warmth and love, he found his soul once again being drawn by the mysterious spirits. He resisted the tug but weariness and curiosity won and he felt himself dreamily hurtling toward a distant land occupied by a gathering of these spirits.

One of the spirits spoke in a harsh tongue to the assembly while etching white symbols upon a flat black stone set into a wall. He understood this scribed language and the healing ritual being illustrated by what could only be a medicine man spirit.

Hawk-in-the-Wind startled him awake. "Are you speaking the tongue of the white spirits?"

He smiled poignantly. Grasping her, his eyes burning, he said, "Never forget me."

She could only watch him walk out.

He ran to the lodges where the other medicine men slept. The moon above was clear and full, its pale light casting shadows from the tall totems.

His comrades were at first irritated. But his excitement was catchy and they hurried behind him to the ceremonial lodge. They swiftly blew new life into the fire and sat back in rapt interest as he narrated a bizarre tale of the journey he would undertake into the spirit world and the ritual that was to be performed.

"This is a little like what I've heard the more barbaric clans to the North do," said an older Medicine Man.

"No, not really," disagreed another.

"Will you pass through the Cleansing?" asked the eldest there, the warm flickering flames casting shadows into the cracks mapped on his face.

"Yes."

Bare-skinned, barefooted and without provisions, he entered the spongy depths of the thick forest. By moonlight, he negotiated huge rocks, swift-running streams and fallen trees until he came to the cool shores of Fire Lake. In ancient times it was said that this lake had spewed fire and had thus become sacred. Gathering dried dead branches from tree trunks and breaking open old pine cones he built a fire.

As the moon set and the sun rose, he watched the creatures take drink from the lake's placid shores. Deer and bear eyed him warily but paid him no great heed and smaller animals even came to within an arm's-length.

During his meditation, his thoughts wandered to his wife. He wept and wept, and screamed, and finally stood.

"I curse you!" He held high a fist to the east sky.

In response, a soaring eagle screeched its haunting song. Slowly he sat down, remembering his son, determined to breathe life into his bloodline no matter what the cost.

He vowed only to get up and scrub himself in the water for the required four times that day or to feed the quiet fire before him. Under his breath he kept up a chant, calling upon the spirits of the forest. When evening came, he offered the embers and ashes to the gentle winds blowing through the green timberland and the deep waters of the lake.

He slept on the moss that night, waking up with melancholic memories. Gritting his teeth, he repeated the ritual.

Sitting cross-legged by the fire on the third day, a massive bear with playful cubs growled at him. As the mother fished, her cubs wandered around fallen trees and mossy rocks until made curious by his smoky presence. He remained still as the cubs cautiously pawed him, eyes blazing with unbridled curiosity.

Sniffing at the fire, the smaller cub suddenly cried out over a burnt nose. The flapping body of a trout still in her mammoth paws, the mother roared once with a fierceness that stilled the nearby forest sounds.

Dropping her lively victim on shore, to the delight of her cubs, she fixed him with an angry glare. He maintained his own unfaltering stare and prayed to the spirits for strength as she rose on hind quarters. As the bear approached, many youthful adventures flashed through his mind. In particular, he remembered the frequent giving-away ceremonies — the potlatches — when prized possessions were offered to nature or to others in a show of detachment. The memories of seal hunting in the bay and of watching the orca breaching from their salty depths brought back tart memories. His carving of a totem and subsequent membership into the Society of Medicine Men was his best recollection. It had led to his acceptance by Hawk-in-the-Wind's wealthier family who then had permitted their marriage.

The stench of the bear's matted fur burned his nostrils as she rose over him. It was one thing to bravely talk about death. Quite another to watch it tower over you.

A sudden look flashed in the bear's eyes. She exploded, striking him with a paw. His shoulder and back erupted with pain as he sailed into the frigid darkness of the lake. Slowly, the cold water became warm and his thoughts of fear ebbed. Familiar feelings changed as the Thunderbird's eyes sparked and its wings thunderously flapped. Then, blackness covered even his dreams.

When consciousness returned, he screamed, grabbing his hurt shoulder. For a moment there was disorientation. The mist slowly swirling at the treetops gave awkward frame to the middle-aged woman's face as she, her daughter, and the black dog looked down on him.

"You all right? —Didn't mean to frighten you." The older woman's voice was raspy from cigarettes.

The young girl picked her nose and eyed him distrustfully. The Great Dane stood erect and unflinching.

"Oh, yeah... yeah...." He closed his eyes. Confusion clouded his mind. Something about a purification rite haunted him. Then even that thought drifted away. "My son found something. Here in the dirt." He showed her the sweaty totem.

"Goodness, it looks ancient!"

"Mommy, 'an I see?" asked the young girl, as she reached to grab the totem.

He wanted to drop the totem, give it away and forever be rid of it. But a deeper need made him suddenly pull it tight to his chest.

The dark dog growled once and attacked. It was hopeless for the woman to restrain the Great Dane as it jumped, hurling its forepaws against Dave's shoulders. Falling backward, he struck his head hard against the metal post of the sign. The vague silhouette of an eagle-like bird came into view as he lost consciousness.

***

He awoke. Numbing water lapped at his chest. Groggily, he opened his eyes to a full moon with small clouds scuttling across its face. A splash of stars spanned the pine-framed horizon. An owl hooted with a satiated voice. The background gurgling of the feed streams grew to a roar as his senses unmercifully returned. Pain speared him in the shoulder when he moved. He turned his head down and found himself partly submerged between two mossy boulders among fallen trees.

He tried shaking off confusion. Hunger welled from his gut, reminding him of unfinished business.

Grimacing, he moved his submerged legs and grasped the protruding branches. He crept across greasy boulders and gnarled logs to the bank and collapsed next to the sooty remains of his fire. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself upright.

He coaxed a few flickering flames out of an old bit of pithy wood, then turned his attention to his injuries. Four long dark bruises and a bloody wound etched his left shoulder. His bones seemed intact.

He sat before the fire and let the forest bathe him in peace until daybreak. Soon, its many voices, profuse scents, and verdant hues merged into a wondrous design. At its center blazed the rising sun, and he felt himself drawn into its healing core. Pains, fears of what was to come, and even his body seemed to melt into the pattern. He meditated and washed three more times, his thoughts often turning to his son, and the many others who burned with an even fiercer fever.

That evening, he walked toward his village but widely circumvented it, finally coming to the rocky shores of the endless salt sea. He wondered what thoughts the villagers had concerning him. Did they worry for him? He kicked at a fern over his likely loss of all that he had come to take for granted.

In the darkness, he plunged into the sea's surging salty depths and proclaimed a prayer to the Orca clan who lived like people deep below. He thought he heard their haunting reply and was briefly frightened by what that meant. As the moon rose, he submitted to the most painful of the ritual washings.

Three circles of lights ringed the moon. In its glow, he swam one last time before returning to the village. His mind had never felt so unfettered by conflict. The pains of hunger, thirst, and even the bear attack were long past. As he walked it seemed he could take to the air like some huge bird. He had shared in previous cleansings but always he had eaten a little. Or beneath the water, a drink would find its way into his mouth. This time he had acted impeccably.

Moonlight pierced the foliage and burned shadowy shafts through the spirals of smoke snaking upward between the tall totems of the village. It was rarely this clear for so many days. He stood quietly by the village edge, thinking about his life. Shaking his head he marched forward.

Three of his comrades greeted him. The others swiftly wakened. Without a sound, they prepared the bowls and oyster cutlery.

By the fire they arranged a comfortable place for him to sit. A hefty friend lifted a large, ornamental club. With practiced agility, he rammed it down on his skull.

That was it.

No pain.

He floated upward and saw his lifeless body being laid back on a blanket. He watched with some revulsion as they sliced open his throat, emptying his steaming blood into their bowls. These were then placed into the fire and the contents allowed to boil.

They then cut open their arms and soaking wads of cloth into the bowls, applied the hot, sticky, red liquid to their self inflicted wounds. His blood now flowed in their veins. Eventually, the whole village would be thus treated to his medicinal blood; a blood that would forever give them immunity to the soul stealing white spirits from the east that caused the spotted fever. He let himself float upward and forever away. His last lingering thought was for his wife and child. Sadness enveloped him. The Thunderbird's eyes sparked just once, its wings roared, and the timeless night sky became a blur.

***

Dave opened his eyes and found Janet looking down at him. His elation at that sight nearly washed away the pain searing his shoulder. His head throbbed. Arthur and several other tribesmen gathered around him. Dave looked down to the mossy ground and the fallen totem.

"Sweetheart! You had us so frightened. You weren't even breathing." She broke down and softly cried as she hugged his sore body.

"Man," sighed Arthur, "I never saw anything like this before." The others mumbled in agreement.

Dave looked to the weather-worn, wood totem and saw the hideous bear face with its outstretched claws. A salmon and the medicine man figure comprised the middle carvings. Cresting the fifteen foot carving silently screeched a Thunderbird with a strange sun symbol on its chest.

"You shouldn't go digging so close to an old totem," said another.

Dave was utterly confused. Countless conflicting memories vied for control. He looked around but found no street. No mansions. Only a winding dirt road. Wiggit Hill was there, in all its natural splendor, but this was no sleepy urban setting recently settled by upper middle-class Canadians. Many other totems rose in orderly repose along the hillside, each telling a different story. Several modern log homes dotted the landscape, but the busy thoroughfare his memory said should be to the west was gone.

"How?" he asked his wife. "What happened?"

She massaged his head, begrudging the carving with her nose. "You got hit over the head by that."

"No. You don't understand. Where's Provincial Avenue? And Wiggit Hill Road, and... and... the stop sign?" But it all too swiftly lost relevance, like a vanishing dream in the few moments of awakening.

He struggled to get up and with help, managed it. Janet held him tight as they walked home. The sight of his Mercedes in the dusty driveway mitigated some of his anxiety... until he saw its curious license plate: Nuu-chah-nulth Nation. Old medicine man masks hung hauntingly on the rough-hewn wall of his porch. The door creaked in an unfamiliar way as he stepped across the threshold.

When he lay back in his bed, Arthur looked down and asked, "You coming tomorrow night to the Lodge?"

Dave was puzzled. Then a memory of something flashed in his mind. "Yeah, absolutely! There's no way we should sell any more land."

"More?" queried Arthur. "Man, that totem must've knocked you silly. Sure as hell ain't selling any land ever. It's the Pacific Rim Treaty the Yanks want us to join. --Hell no! We're joinin' with our brothers down south, Dinehta. We get minerals and they get fish. That stuff. Funny how the Hopi called 'em Navaho. Right thing to do, seein' as how they left us all those centuries ago, gettin' lost in the flood and all 'til they got to the desert."

His neighbors uttered grunts of agreement though Dave noticed a few who grimaced with poverty-stricken faces. One by one, they filed out of the room, leaving him alone with Janet. She looked down at him, worried. As the sound of footsteps and voices grew distant, he looked away and sighed, slowly shaking his head. A powerful, unfocused feeling filled him. He didn't know why but it brought tears to his eyes. He began to sob with some embarrassment.

Janet disrobed and helped him out of his own clothes. She massaged his huge, hairy chest for a while before calmly embracing his willing body. He lost all melancholy. Slowly, gracefully, and then powerfully their lovemaking merged into an unprecedented orgasm.

He woke up alone hours later. An old cuckoo clock stirred and ticked where it hung on the far wall's raw but lacquered logs. A big color T.V. contrasted curiously with the rustic background. He rose and walked to the window. Long afternoon shadows subdued the bright greens of the forest. The two cabins within view were a welcome sight. Another world, another place. When he saw his Mercedes he realized what he would do.

He walked to his desk and turned on the computer. His hard drive accessed a file and soon the monitor came alive with his most recent writing. His eyes focused on the dull reflection of the tiny, stone totem that lay next to the keyboard. He fondled it tenderly as he read from his latest computer entry. It was a retelling of the Totem's story.

It missed an important ingredient which sat in his dreams somewhere. He scrutinized the ornate stone, knew what the Thunderbird had done, understood he significance of the bear, but a piece of the stone had not yet been finished. Then he remembered the sun carved into the Thunderbird's chest on the larger totem. But even that did not finish the story.

He lay the totem down and sat back, hands clasped behind his neck. Janet walked in quietly and lightly touched his head. "Feeling better?"

He looked up and smiled. "Much, thanks."

Her smile took on an air of singular satisfaction. "Good, then you'll be happy to know I cooked your favorite food."

"Salmon?"

"Yup. And I made sure it never touched anything but the shell dishes and cutlery your mom gave us thirteen years ago."

He breathed a sigh of gratitude. "Why do you put up with it?" Before she answered, he quickly said, "I... I love you so much."

She eyed him with an amusing look. "You'd better be prepared to do a bunch of dishes." She sat on a chair next to him.

The sudden pounding of footsteps sent thrills up his spine.

"—Hi, Dad! Hi, Mom!" said Bobby, bursting into the room.

They opened their arms to embrace him.

"How was school?" asked Dave.

"P'urty good." Bobby paused for a moment. "'Cept I got a bit razzed by this girl 'cause we voted against joining that Pacific trade thing. Says her mom said we could all be millionaires. Boy, you should see the size of her dog. Big as a pony. And all black."

Dave frowned. Political correctness was getting weirder by the day. A non-indigenous teasing a native? What was the world coming to? And where had he seen such a dog? He shook his head and looked hard at Bobby. "Son, we're doing just fine without all that money. But that's not what's important. Look out the window."

Even Janet looked.

"What's out there?"

Bobby looked to his dad then to Janet. She just smiled and nodded at the window.

Bobby walked to it. "I dunno. Lots of stuff."

"Like what?"

"Trees, 'n hills, and the sky."

"Do you see totem poles?"

"Yeah. --So? Then there's Trent's log house and the dirt road...." Bobby tried to see around the side of the window. "You can't see all of it, but there's the big meeting house. Oh, and there's a thunderhead coming in over Wiggit Hill."

"How would you like waking up one morning to find it all gone? Nothing but cars, houses, and paved roads?"

Bobby shrugged.

Dave continued, "I made a decision." He smiled, holding the tension. "After the vote tomorrow I'm going to hold a potlatch."

Janet froze.

"Can I give away my I-Phone?" blurted Bobby.

Dave laughed and hugged his son. "If you want to, of course." He winked at Janet, who relaxed a bit.

Bobby jumped down. "Smells like fish! Boy, am I starvin'." He grabbed his father's arm. "Com'on dad, let's eat!"

All three stopped in their tracks as a violent flash of lightning lit up the hallway outside the bedroom. Almost instantly, the thunder rolled, echoing against distant hills. The lights in the house flickered for a moment before going out.

Like an old friend visiting, a warm feeling touched Dave's heart, and he tucked his wife under one arm and his son under the other and walked toward the darkness of the kitchen.

The three froze in their tracks.

A brilliant ball of light emerged from the kitchen. Janet, paralyzed by fear, let Dave walk forward but held tight to Bobby. Confused — as though she were an actor in a play — she could only stare as her husband dissolved into the white light before it fizzled out.

A great bird only Dave could see clearly reached forward with massive claws. Whole, for all three of his souls were grasped, he was yanked by the Thunderbird through the stormy horizon toward the sea where he was hurled indifferently beneath the waves to join the clan to which he now belonged. He barely heard the distant yells — felt their loss of him — as if all that were a dream, and wondered if they would ever understand what he had accomplished. But soon, the only sounds that mattered were the lyrical, storytelling songs welling from the deep. He madly swam down adding his own wailing, a story of the price he'd had to pay for saving The People, into the endless sea medley.

Bent Lorentzen

Bent Lorentzen

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