Cry, Kwakiutl


The semi had hit the telephone pole exactly mid-front bumper.  This was a straight stretch of highway, and so, the patrolman noted that the abrupt change of direction the tire marks made on the ice on the pavement did not “make sense.”  Did the driver quickly and erratically spin the wheel due to a dropped cigarette?  — or perhaps a latent heart condition kick in?  The answer should come from the truck’s custodian, unconscious and en route via ambulance to the clinic at Llano Naranja.

The driver was checked-in by Marta Dominguez, working the night shift at the clinic’s emergency room.  As she helped transfer the gurney into the receiving area, she had an odd sense about this patient.  A look of shock and bewildered apprenension seemed etched onto his face.  She had the feeling that this facial message presaged the accident.

It would be two days before the driver regained consciousness, his presence at the table of “the Here and Now” further impeded by the drugs administered to block the pain of cracked ribs and broken nose.

Marta had gone to the movies earlier that month with a male friend, and afterwards stopped at the Orange Flats Diner.  She had barely settled into her seat when a hand tapped her shoulder from the adjacent booth.  “May I join you?”

Marta turned to her companion, who shrugged ‘why not?’ then back to Fescue Tseyka, within whose gray and weathered countenance could be any combination of ethnicity.  Turned out he was half-Tlingit Indian, far from the tribal homelands of the Northwest.  A competent and efficient handyman, he had done odd jobs at both of Marta’s places of employment, and she had made his acquaintance.  But something was troubling him this evening, and Marta and friend were to become the outlet for Fescue’s epistle.

“Miss Dominguez, I have watched you for some time.  And your companion seems of kindred spirit.  I think I can share something with you.”  Marta and Beta, noticing the nearby waitress, pointed to their coffee cups and turned back to Tseyka.

“I am far from my ancestral home, but I have followed the spirits of my forefathers to this place,” continued Fescue.  “Many years ago my people lived not only in harmony with the land and sea, but with the spirits of those places.  The holy men would strive to become conduits for their spirit guides and allies.  Messages from these spirits would be transmitted to the people through Potlatch.”

“Potlatch?” inserted Marta.

Tseyka continued.  “Each passing of a chief, or a change of dynasty, moments of deep significance for my people would be marked by Potlatch.  Each Potlatch would be commemorated by a totem for that occasion.  Our spirit guides and allies would reveal the totem’s form through the holy men.”

Beta squirmed, though he knew, no matter what, he had to be polite on this date.  “The holy men were like spirit mediums?  Coffee appeared in their cups, with menus left unobtrusively at the table’s edge.  “The spirits worked through the holy men?”

Tseyka looked at Beta benignly, and with a hint of a smile continued.  “Not my tribe alone, but our neighbor tribes could read their ancestor’s history through the totems.  The Tsimshian, the Haida, the Nootka, and others whose names are gone but their spirits continue.  And,” he sighed, “cry, Kwakiutl.”

Fescue lapsed into silence, his eyes momentarily closed.  Marta politely waved “we’re fine” to the puzzled waitress, who then was able to concentrate on other customers across the diner.

“When the white men began to intrude upon our lands, they tried to take everything.  It was not enough to take our livelihood, our best hunting and fishing.  They could not take Potlatch, so they tried to take us from our spirits.”  Tseyka took a long slow sip from his cup.  “The creation of totems was outlawed.  None fought as hard as the Kwakiutl.  The white men were especially ruthless in their squashing the Kwakiutl’s ancestral ways.”  Another measured silence ensued, their coffee cups re-filled.  “My uncle was part Kwakiutl,” Tseyka resumed.  “He told me of his five times great-grandfather, a holy man of powerful medicine.  Rather than abide by the white man’s edicts, he and a few disciples went directly to the spirit realm to continue the old ways.”

Both Marta and Beta had been patiently listening, but this last statement was in need of clarification.  Fescue allowed himself a wry smile.  “They left their bodies and have been in the spirit realm ever since.  When my uncle told me of this, I realized that I have always been aware of my six times great-grandfather.  He and his tribe are near this place.”

“They practice Potlatch, sometimes their totems briefly intrude upon our realm.  When the light is just so, at twilight, or when a dark cloud hides the sun, I can see their work.”  Tseyka allowed himself both another smile and long sip of coffee.  “Oh!  I better let you kids have your dinner.  Thanks for listening.”  Fescue Tseyka grasped both their hands in his, scooped up his coat, and left.

Marta was back on duty when the truck driver regained consciousness.  She reflected back to when she admitted him two nights before, and the apprehension she had had.  She then easily bridged another mental spark-gap, to her “dinner with Beta and Fescue.”  Afterwards, Beta mentioned that during his previous truck-driving job he thought he had seen strange protuberances from trees or signposts or even telephone poles “when the conditions were right.”  Marta remembered one time in particular in the forest when, for one several-second span, a tree had several faces, stacked one atop the other.  She looked again, and they were gone.

The driver moaned through the bandages covering his nose.  Marta took a few steps in from the door.  The driver opened his eyes and looked around the room slowly.  His gaze stopped at Marta.  His banged-up face could not disguise an embarrassed grin.  “You’ll never guess what I thought I saw.”

“Try me,” Marta grinned back.

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