Volume 12
An Online Literary Magazine
January 31, 2018


I Heard the Owl Call my Name


Margaret Craven



e stood at the wheel, watching the current stream, and the bald eagles fishing for herring that waited until the boat was almost upon them to lift, to drop the instant it had passed. The tops of the islands were wreathed in cloud, the sides fell steeply, and the firs that covered them grew so precisely to the high-tide line that now, at slack, the upcoast of British Columbia showed its bones in a straight selvage of wet, dark rock.


“There's the sign of an old village," said the Indian boy who was his deckhand. His eyes sought a beach from which, long ago, the big stones had been removed so that the war canoes could be pulled up stem first. But there was no beach. There was nothing but clean, straight selvage, and a scattered mound of something broken and white in the gray of rain against the green of spruce, and he remembered the words Caleb had quoted him, and he repeated them now.


“’When you see clamshells, know it is Indian country. Leave it alone.’"


"Queen Victoria," the Indian boy said quickly. "Some people didn't hear her.”


Caleb had prepared him for this one, the first he was to know: "He's been working for a year in a mill town and is eager to return to his village.


“You’ll not take the boat out without him until you get your papers. He could handle a boat when he was ten, and he knows more about the coast than you will ever learn. You'll think he's shy, and you'll be wrong. When you shake his hand, you'll know at once it's a gesture he's learned which has no meaning. In his eyes you'll see a look that is in the eyes of all of them, and it will be your job to figure out what it means, and what you are going to do about it. And he will watch you—they will all watch you—and in his own time, he will accept or reject you."


Caleb, the old canon, had come out of retirement to acquaint him with all the endearing and exasperating little ways of the forty-foot diesel launch upon which his life would depend.


Back up. Go forward. Up and down the straits. In and out of the lower inlets in a mild chop, in a moderate chop, in a gale. The tide-book open by the compass, because you came with the tide, you went with the tide, you waited for the tide, and sometimes you prayed for the tide. Check the oil pressure and the shaft bearings. Pump the bilge. Watch for the drift logs. Count the lights on the masts of the tugboats that showed the size of their booms.


Because Caleb was old, the young man had thought, of course, he would be garrulous and full of reminiscence, but he was wrong. The talk had been entirely nautical. Even in the galley, over meals that the young man cooked, Caleb had occasionally dropped what surely could not, yet must, be godly counsel.


"Be sure to use the Victorian 'we,' lad.


"'When you bury anybody, remember to look in the box the very last minute. Forty years ago, up at Fort Rupert, I buried the wrong man, and even now the RCMP has not forgotten it.


"Don't call them cannibals. It was never true literally. No one alive has seen the famous dance in which the young man, maddened by the cannibal spirit, returns to his village crying for flesh and carrying a body taken from a grave tree."


Then one evening they had tied up at the marina of Powell River where the Indian boy had been working, and Caleb lived.


"He’ll be here early in the morning, and he’ll help you load the organ the local church is sending to Kingcome Village. Don't be sorry for yourself because you are going to so remote a parish. Be sorry for the Indians. You know nothing and they must teach you," and Caleb had blessed him and ambled off, bareheaded in the rain, a man whose work on the coast was so legendary that it was said the Archbishop of Canterbury greeted him by his first name and a joke old between them. "Tell me, Caleb. How's your trap line? Any poaching?"


Then he was alone in the galley and sure of the look he would see in the Indian's eyes. The tribes of the villages, which would form his patrol, belonged to a people that had never been at war with the white man. They lived where they had always lived. They fished as they had always fished, known for their intelligence and a culture that was perhaps the most highly developed of any native band on the continent. In the old days when a chief had given a great feast for his rivals, he let the fire that burned in the center of his ceremonial house catch the roof beams until the red hot embers fell, knowing that until he gave the sign, no guest dared move lest he admit the host's fire had conquered him. When he served his guests from the great ceremonial dishes, he spilt hot grease on their bare arms to see if he could make them wince. And sometimes he broke his own copper—big as a shield, its buying power as great as three thousand of the white man's dollars—broke to show to his guests his disdain for his own wealth. Surely the look would be one of arrogance. In the morning he awakened early, dressed, put the coffee on to boil, and went up the ladder into the wheelhouse and out onto the deck. On the float waited the first one. He waited patiently as if he had waited all his life, as if he were part of time itself. He was twenty-seven, perhaps, which was the age of the young vicar. He wore a fisherman's dark trousers and jacket; a pair of gum boots hung over one shoulder. Beside him were his belongings in a heavy cardboard box tied with string.


The young vicar jumped down on the float.


“Welcome aboard. I'm Mark, Mark Brian.” He held out his hand.


"I'm Jim Wallace," the Indian said shyly, and he took the hand with no answering pressure.


There was pride in his eyes without arrogance. Behind the pride was a sadness so deep it seemed to stretch back into ancient mysteries Mark could not even imagine, and he felt that small thrill of fear, of anticipation, which a man knows if he's lucky enough to meet and recognize his challenge.


He led the way aboard. Eager to be off, the two of them worked hard, loading the organ onto the aft deck, covering it with a canvas, and lashing it tight. Then they started north in a moderate swell and a driving rain, past the fishing village of Lund, past Cortes and Redonda, through the Yuculta Rapids, with Jim, the Indian, fighting the tide for the wheel. Just before dark they came to a lonely float in Shoal Bay.


"Shall we spend the night here?" Mark asked carefully. "Shall we have supper? I’ll get it."


Now, on the second afternoon in the twentieth hour of passage, he stood at the wheel, approaching the first village that was to be part of his patrol.


"How soon now?"


"Very soon now. First you will see Ghost Island. It’s where the Indians of Gilford village once buried their dead."


"In the ground?"


"'No, in low sheds. Most of them have fallen and broken. If you go there now, you stumble over skulls green with moss."


He saw the small island, lovely as a jade jewel, and he slowed the boat and passed the village with its rare beach, white with clam shells, its stretch of cedar houses facing the water, and four great cedar posts standing in the rain—all that was left of some ancient ceremonial house.


“This is the same tribe as yours at Kingcome?"


"No, but we're close relatives. Each February we come here to clam. Once the Indian agent asked us to live here because he could step easily onto the big float without getting his feet wet."


“And you refused?"


"No. Our old people said, ‘We are going to Hollywood,’ and we came. We had some fine dancing, the air filled with duck down. We saw the famous blanket trimmed with a thousand eagle beaks, and because we are not permitted to buy liquor to serve in our own homes, the boys traded two masks for three cases of beer, and we drank it very fast and got very drunk.”


"And then?"


"Then we returned to our own village."


Beyond the village, inches above the high-tide mark, Mark saw two carved killer whales, topped by a full moon.


“It's only the grave of Johnny Ray who was drowned," Jim told him. “When you come here to marry, to bury, to hold church in the school house, they will say to you, 'Johnny's hiding in the bush, and he steals things and scares our women. What'll we do?'"


In Cramer Pass a school of porpoise refused to move out of the boat's way, and watched the boat, heads up, headed straight for the boat and, at the last moment, leapt aside. And in the late afternoon the men stopped to take on oil and water at the last point of contact with the outside world, a store where the loggers and Indians came for mail and supplies, built on a float, cabled to the steep island side.


The young vicar introduced himself to the oil agent and handed him a list of groceries he wished filled.


"Biggest order I'll fill this week. Newcomers don't buy here. They fill up south where things are cheaper."


“I know. Caleb told me." And the man's wife filled the order while he helped Jim with the oil. Two small raccoons, making a strange whirring sound, begged Mark for bread and took it gently in their strange little hands.


When the men were leaving, the wife of the agent gave Mark a bundle. "One of your pals left his duds here," she said. “Caleb, probably.”


Mark opened the bundle to find a cassock, its hem thick with dried mud.


Then they went on, the young vicar preparing supper in the galley, handing up plates of food and mugs of coffee. The Indian ate standing at the wheel; Mark perched on the high stool beside him.


No tug boat passed now, no huge boom of mixed logs. There was nothing but a lonely magnificence of sea and Islands. When they went through Pamphrey's Pass and into Kingcome Inlet, which was the last, Mark saw the dorsal fin of a killer whale cruising slowly down the far side.


"Sometimes they rub against the boat," the Indian told him. “Sometimes they jump out of the water and come down flat with a terrific smash to knock off the barnacles that grow on the underside of their bodies."


"Why are we slowing?"


"Because we're passing the float house of Calamity Bill, the hand-logger. See his shack there and his A-frame? If we go too fast, the wake of our boat will knock the nails out of his float, and he'll come out shaking his fist and swearing. He wears two sets of long-legged underwear and he changes one." “The inside one, I hope."


"No, the outside one. The other's part of his skin, and when she knows you better, the wife of the oil agent at the float store will ask you to help her get it off him and into her washing machine."


"Oh, no, she won't.”


They slipped through a pass so narrow Mark was sure the boat would scrape on a huge rock shaped like a whale and covered with brown seaweed.


"My people call it ‘Whale Pass' because long ago the gods turned a whale into that rock."


Now they could see the great mountains lifting into the sky. On the far side of the inlet was a strip of bare granite, like the ragged scar of some huge grizzly, where a slide had peeled off every tree, every bit of soil. They could see the little falls that cascaded down cliffs, green with moss.


The young vicar said to himself, "If man were to vanish from this planet tomorrow, here he would leave no trace that he ever was."


They moved up the twenty-mile Inlet with the dusk deepening into dark, the raindrops glistening, falling slowly in the searchlight, an occasional little fish darting through the white, spumy wake off the bow. And they came at last to the government float, a third of a mile from the inlet's end and three and one-half miles from the village of Kingcome. They tied up on the inside of the float where the boat would not roll.


"In the morning how will we manage?"


“In the morning we will lower the speed boat and I will go first with your gear and food. I will return with boys from the village and two of the thirty-foot canoes, and they will help load the organ and take it to the village.”


“Up the river?”


"Yes. On the cliffs before you reach the river. You will see paintings of cattle, sheep, goats and coppers that mark the gifts given in a great tribal potlatch. There were so many that, put end to end, it is said they would have reached from the village three miles down the inlet.”


“The paintings are very old?”


"Less than thirty years. The potlatch was in 1936.”


In the cabin under the bow the young vicar awakened in the night. The rain had stopped. Through the open porthole he could hear the wind murmuring in the firs, and the distant mewing of the gulls.


Somewhere in the dark night beyond the Inlet and up the river waited the village, and he lay still, remembering all the bishop had told him of the village when he had first asked him to come:


"It is an old village. Nobody knows how old. According to the myth, after the great flood two brothers were the only human beings left alive in the world, and they heard a voice speak and it said, 'Come, Wolf, lend them your skin that they may go fleetly and find themselves a home.’ And in the wolf’s skin the brothers moved south until they came to a small and lovely valley on a river’s edge, surrounded by high mountains, and here they returned the skin to their friend, the wolf, and they threw a magic stone to see which one would build his village here, and Quelele, the younger, moved on, and Khawadelugha, the elder, built his house, and in his dances he moved right as even now the dancers move right because the wolf moved right, and on his totem he carved a wolf as one of the crests of his tribe.


“The Indian name of the village is Quee, which means 'inside place’ and according to the tribal history its site was chosen wisely because the river, its access, is treacherous and easily defended. But the enemy was wise also, and in the great tribal wars it came through a mountain pass and down the river, and the spirit that lives in Whoop-Szo, the Noisy Mountain, that is across the river and towers over the village, heard the enemy coming and sent down a slide and buried it.


"Now Kingcome is known as a compact, Christian village, and this means that to rim smoothly the elected chief, the vicar and the agent from the Indian Affairs Department must be co-operative and wise, and though I am sure the Lord could pass a small miracle and manage this, He seldom does. Once there was a chief who agreed with anyone on anything. Once there was an agent who said there was no use educating the Indian because if you did, you'd have to find him a job, and he was bound to die off anyway. And once the church sent a man to Kingcome who had never worked out well anywhere because it was sure here he could do no harm. All were wrong, and the village survived them.


"The Indian knows his village and feels for his village as no white man for his country, his town or even for his own bit of land. His village is not the strip of land four miles long and three miles wide that is his as long as the sun rises and the moon sets. The myths are the village and the winds and the rains. The river is the village, and the black and white killer whales that herd the fish to the end of the inlet the better to gobble them. The village is the salmon who comes up the river to spawn, the seal who follows the salmon and bites off his head, the blue jay whose name Is like the sound he makes—'Kwiss-kwiss.’ The village is the talking bird, the owl, who calls the name of the man who is going to die, and the silver-tipped grizzly who ambles into the village, and the little white speck that is the mountain goat on Whoop-Szo.


"The fifty-foot totem by the church is the village, and the Cedar-man who stands at the bottom holding up the eagle, the wolf and the raven! And a voice said to the great cedar tree in Bond Sound, 'Come forth, Tzakamayi, and be a man,' and he came forth to be the Cedar-man, the first man-god of the people and more powerful than all others." And the bishop had been silent for a moment before he added slowly, "This is the village. If you go there, from the time you tie up at the float in the inlet, the village is you. But there is one thing you must understand. They will not thank you. Even if you should leave a broken man, they will not thank you. There is no word for thank you in Kwakwala."


Margaret Craven (1901–1980) was the author of the much-loved American classic I Heard the Owl Call My Name. She also wrote another novel, Walk Gently This Good Earth; an autobiography, Again Calls the Owl; and a short-story collection, The Home Front.







Home | Search | About Us | Submissions | Mailing List | Links | The Writer's Workshop