Excerpt from Sea of a Thousand Words. (Chapter 22)
“Hey, Dot—c’mere and take a look at this sail, will ya’—is this what you wanted?” Ooligan spread the canvas out on the grass.The sail began to take on the shape of a large clamshell as she unwrapped its accordion-like folds. Dot backed out of the inner hull where she’d been lashing the last of the three mast steps to the frame. Tucking the leather strips into her pocket, she stepped over the cockpit and stood next to Oolie with her hands on her hips, carefully studying the sail. Ooligan pointed toward the base, where the battens would meet the mast once the sail was bent on. “I’m pretty sure that I got them long enough this time. What do you think—wanna try it out?”
Dot nodded and the two women lifted the scalloped sail upright, carrying it over to the baidarka. Pasha glanced up from his stitching, clambered over the pile of old sail material and grabbed one of the masts that lay beside the boat. He carefully stepped it into its slot and twisted until a solid thunk emanated from inside the hull. Ooligan and Pasha held the fabric as Dot fastened the gaskets around the mast. They stepped back and admired the new fan-shaped sail rising from the baidarka’s deck like a peacock’s tail. “Bravo—one down, two more to go!” Oolie exclaimed. Dot smiled, it was her first attempt at sail design and she was pleased that her creation worked. Climbing back into the cockpit, she squeezed herself underneath the decking. The muffled exchanges between Ooligan and Pasha drifted into the hull as she sweated with her lashings in the confined chamber—their constant bantering now a part of the ambient sounds of her workday. She detected a new voice joining in the conversation and picked out the low cadence of Adili’s Kenyan accent. Dot backed her way out of the baidarka and pulled herself out of the mid-section cockpit. She wiped the perspiration off her brow with the back of her hand and waved at Adili.
“Hello Dot, I see progress is being made on your baidarka. This sail is most unusual, how does it work?”
Dot tied together two lengths of her leather straps and attached an end to the most outside batten of the sail. She sat back into the cockpit and then pulled on the strap. The sail pivoted toward her. Pointing to the opposite side, she mimed pulling a strap the same way. She brought her hands together, as if pulling back on the reins of a horse, and mimicked tying the straps onto a cleat. Adili nodded, “This is a remarkable design. You are a clever woman, Dot.”
Ooligan picked up her second sail and walked over to where Adili stood. “That’s not all—check out this slick feature she just added.” Oolie flipped the partially finished sail she was holding upside down—spreading the battens out into a circle on the grass and brought the clamshell shape together at its ends. The upside-down sail became a conical tent. “Isn’t this cool? We should’ve thought of this years ago, Adili. Just think about all those nights we’ve had to camp al fresco!”
Pasha set his canvas down and stood up, squinting toward the channel. He pointed toward the water, past where Dot’s little boat bobbed along the shore. “I think that your Saka is wanting for you to play, no?”
Dot looked toward the channel in time to see a black and white fluke slap the water. She tossed her gloves and straps into the boat and walked toward the shore. Saka surfaced a hundred yards out and flapped his pectoral fin on the waves as he splashed sideways. “He’s sort of like a kitten when he gets playful, isn’t he?” Ooligan said. “A great big, seven-thousand-kilo kitty.”
Dot looked around the row of kayaks and spotted several spare paddles. She motioned to the baidarka they were working on and pointed to the whale. Adili watched her and said, “Are you asking if Oolie and I want to go with you to see this whale?” Dot shook her head, pointing to where Pasha stood. “Ah, just the three of us? But your Saka does not know us. How will he react?”
Dot nodded her head and gestured again to the baidarka. Ooligan sprinted over to the paddles and grabbed three. “I don’t know about you, Kenyan… but I’m game for this!”
Pasha smiled, lifted the mast and sail from the hull and grabbed the prow of the baidarka. “Count me in.”
Adili squinted and looked skeptically at the black fin cutting through the water. He sighed and said, “Well, never let it be said that a Maasai warrior would be outdone by a skinny Russian.” He bowed and pulled a beaded necklace over his head, handing it to Dot. “Hold onto this for me please. There is a photo of my wife and child in the locket—I never wear it in the water.” He walked back to the baidarka and grabbed the stern. Hefting it onto his shoulder, he followed Pasha to the shore’s edge where Ooligan waited with the paddles. Dot smiled as she watched her friends launch the three person kayak and venture out to where Saka frolicked in the deeper water.
The sound of gravel under foot startled Dot and she turned to see the chief walking down the footpath toward them. She nodded at Reba and pointed to the threesome playing with the whale. Reba held her palm across her forehead and watched the fetchers as they laughed and reached out to pat the large fin. Saka dove beneath the baidarka and surfaced eighteen-feet high with a full body spy hop. Ooligan shrieked with delight. As the whale fell back into the water, the vessel and its three occupants were drenched in a column of water. Even Adili laughed with enjoyment at the soaking, “Kubwa!”
Reba shook her head and smiled, “A good omen, that.” Without turning her gaze away from the antics on the water, she asked, “Tell me Dot, in your adopted language, Saka’s kind are called ‘sgáan’, correct?” She glanced at the girl for confirmation and Dot nodded yes. Reba tilted her head to one side; lost in thought as she looked across the channel. Eventually she said, “In the tongue of my ancestors, orca are called ‘ska’ana.’ Did you know that ska’ana are considered extremely good luck by our people?” She pointed in the direction of Saka, “It has long been held that, at one time, orcas would capture our canoes and take them under the water to transform the occupants into ska’ana. For that reason, we have always believed that an orca near the shore is actually a human—transformed—trying to communicate with his or her family.” She looked over at Dot and smiled at the girl’s wide-eyed fascination.”What do you think of that?” They stood together on the shore and regarded the whale interacting with the fetchers for several minutes. Reba murmured quietly—almost as if to herself, “It’s also said that to be splashed by a ska’ana—like Saka out there—will ensure great luck and happiness because they are the guardians of the ocean and all who travel upon it. And so Dot, I believe that this is quite a good thing… What’s taking place out there right now.”
Dot beamed as she listened to Reba speak of the old legends. She turned her attention to her friends paddling in the channel with her old companion. She’d never given much thought to the lore of the sgáan. It had always been enough for her–the gift of Saka’s friendship. She’d never really attributed any special meaning to it. Now she felt an overwhelming sense of pride, knowing that Saka and his kind were held in such high regard by others.
Reba turned to go, but after taking a few steps toward the woods, she paused and looked over her shoulder at the girl standing alone on the beach. Reba thought about the other great significance of the ska’ana; that important chiefs were often reincarnated into orca when they died, returning as messenger spirits to guide the chosen ones. Reba considered sharing the story with Dot, but something held her back. It’s best to leave that myth alone for now. She’ll find her own truth as she needs it.