As I begin to tie the various strands together to finish the tapestry of my story, I am looking back to early chapters in which many of the main characters and settings are introduced. This is one of my favorites, in large part for the description of the Haida longhouse and establishing the relationship between Ol’ Pa and Marta.
Old Massett. Jul 14. 2022
An elderly man and his daughter wandered along the beach, their footprints paralleled the foamy margins of the ebb tide. Every so often, one of them knelt beside a shallow pool and plucked out a spiny urchin or purple sea cucumber. The woman placed them into the basket that she’d slung over her arm.
The recent earthquake made foraging more of a challenge; entire ecosystems had been damaged by the Tyee’s tsunami as far north as the shores of Haida Gwaii. As the northwest coast disintegrated, fish and marine life abandoned their habitats—waiting, it seemed, for the earth to calm itself. The Tyee’s catastrophe had only worsened the already tenuous conditions created by the ocean’s climbing temperatures. The chíin had long since abandoned their Inside Passage runs for cooler water offshore—and once there, massive factory trawlers scooped up the precious salmon. Few now returned to spawn. The local fishermen lost their livelihood and the islands’ residents, their main food source.
The old man veered off his path and began to follow a zigzagging trail of moist sand. He paused abruptly, stooping over a soggy patch to poke at the wet area with his walking stick, creating a miniature well. “Marta, come here—I bet there’s some k’áag hiding down there.”
The woman walked over to the puddle, already refilling with seawater. She bent down and swirled her fingers in the pool, creating a little funnel. “Hmm, maybe so… Did you bring your spade this time, Chiinga?”
He shook his head.
“I figured as much.” She sat the basket down beside her and helped him dig, using both hands to push away the sand.
“Here, try this.” Handing her a flat piece of driftwood, he continued to shovel with the end of his stick. Eventually they uncovered a few dozen butter clams and rinsed them in the saltwater, placing them on top of the catch in Marta’s basket.
“C’mon Ol’ Pa, let’s go home now, I want to soak these before they dry out.” Adjusting her straw hat so that the brim covered the back of her neck, she muttered, “Whew, it’s warm today.”
“OK—OK. Just hold on a minute. I want to take a look at what’s over by the point—see it?” He pointed toward the bluff, “I know for a fact that wasn’t there a week ago. I dug for k’áag at that very spot on Tuesday.”
“It’s just another boat washed up on the rocks, Ol’ Pa. They’ve been coming in all week—ever since the big quake. It’s getting too hot for you to be walking that far—forget about it.”
“Shush girl, I’m going to take a look.” He set off in the direction of the bluff.
Marta caught up with her father and they walked together for some time, the old man humming as they plodded along. The shipwreck was further away than he’d reckoned and it hovered, mirage-like, across the expansive beach. At last, they came upon their target: A blue hull resting askew on two large boulders with a gaping hole at its waterline. On the transom was painted a faded red flower, and beneath it, two words were stenciled in tarnished gold letters, “Dottie Rose.” Marta placed her hands on her hips and stared at the vessel, “We shouldn’t get too close, it might be one of those coyote boats.”
Ignoring her cautionary advice, the old man stepped inside and looked around. His voice echoed through the hull as he spoke. “There might be some stores inside. If there’s a transponder chip, we could salvage it and who knows, maybe sell it. I think I’ll check this out.” He disappeared completely into the boat’s cavity.
Marta sighed and sat down on one of the logs. Removing her hat, she twisted her greying hair into a thick braid. She knew there was no use arguing with Ol’ Pa, he was going to do whatever he wanted to—he always did. She hoped he didn’t get stuck inside the wreck, as she didn’t fancy going inside that dark, smelly thing to rescue him. Shifting her basket into a shadier spot, she covered it with her hat and waited for him to return.
“Daughter—come here! I’ve found something!”
Marta walked over to the hole and peered inside. The interior was dark and she had difficulty locating where his voice came from. Eventually, her eyes adjusted to the shadowy surroundings and she spotted his outline near a companionway. He carried something heavy in his arms. “Chiinga, what do you think you’re…?”
“Hurry up girl, she’s too heavy for me. I think she’s still alive. Come on—help me before I drop her.”
Marta stepped across the debris and realized that he held an unconscious little girl. She grabbed the child’s legs, supporting one foot on each hip as Ol’ Pa carried the girl by her shoulders, her head against his chest; tendrils of curly brown hair spilled across his arms. The two of them crab-walked over the frames, trying not to drop the child. As Marta backed out of the hole, her foot went through one of the vessel’s rotten planks. Marta fell, letting go of the child as her hands hit the rough wood. She felt warm blood trickle down her calf as she struggled to extract her leg from the broken hull. “Careful there, daughter! Pick her up again… OK, now take another step—nice and easy. Let’s put her down right here… Ah, good.”
They laid the girl on the warm sand and slumped down next to her, both winded by the exertion. The tiny girl looked so fragile, her pale face was peppered with dozens of freckles and a nasty gash ran along the side of her forehead, looking as if it might become infected. Marta placed her fingers under the girl’s chin to check for a pulse, the skin felt clammy to her touch, but Marta detected a feeble heartbeat. She glanced up at Ol’ Pa and nodded and then offered him her canteen. “OK, she’s alive–barely. Now what, Chiinga?”
The old man looked toward the ocean, the horizon was clear. “No trackers as far as I can see,” he said. Taking a long swig from his daughter’s canteen he handed it back. “They must not know the boat is here.”
Marta gulped down the water. “What do you suppose she was doing all alone in that boat? Perhaps somebody else went looking for help?” She poured some water on her shirt tail and squeezed the cool liquid onto the child’s lips.
“I don’t see any other footprints in the sand,” Ol’ Pa said. “Maybe if there were others, they got swept overboard?”
“Hmm, I don’t like this. Strangers bring trackers and trackers bring trouble for the village—you know that.” Marta ran her fingers through the child’s tangled hair, brushing several fine strands away from the girl’s eyes. It was a maternal gesture, one she had not used for many years. “Ol’ Pa,” she whispered, “If this little hlk’ín-giid is chipped, then what?”
“Well, there’s no sense worrying about what we can’t fix. Right now, we need to figure out how to get her back to the village.”
Marta stood up and instantly felt the pain in her calf. “Ahhh—that really smarts!” She rolled up her jeans and examined the wound. The bleeding had stopped but the cut looked jagged and deep. “Ugh, Doc’s going to want to stitch this up for sure,” she mumbled.
“Can you walk on it? If so, you go for help. Leave me the water and I’ll stay here,” he gestured inland. “But get Doc Gravin to take care of that cut first—it needs looking at.” He pulled himself up and dragged the little girl farther into the shade. Before Marta could argue, he continued, “Stop at Billy Telford’s place. He’s got that dune buggy—he’ll come for us… And besides, I’ve always wanted to ride in that contraption.”
Marta handed Ol’ Pa the canteen and took her basket of seafood. “Chiinga, please be careful. I’ll be back in a few hours. Promise me you won’t go back inside that boat—not for any stupid transponder chip… I don’t care how much you could get for it.”
Ol’ Pa waved her away. “Yeah, yeah—now off with you, girl. I want to be home in plenty time for my dinner.”
The Old Massett longhouse sat in the heart of the village and served as the assembly hall and community center for the inhabitants. The century-old structure was constructed of massive trees from the Naikoon forest and fastened together with wooden spikes. Inside its thick walls, the polished logs were decorated with carvings of ceremonial masks and stylized animals from Haida lore. Complex and colorful figurines of bears, whales and eagles were mounted next to mythical Thunderbirds. Wall-hangings made from roots and cedar bark hung beside woven tapestries that depicted events from long ago. These tactile works of art—created by many hands over the years, kept the Haida history alive. Outside, the building’s ancient timbers were protected by eaves of heavy, roughhewn beams. Columns of steel crabpots stacked along the walls awaited the coming húugaa season—when the spiny Dungeness returned to the shallows. Weathered totem poles towered over the grassy lawn, standing sentinel in front of the double doors. They varied in shape; some stout, others reaching over seventy-feet high. Faded colors clung to the crevices of the totems’ aged caricatures; their eyes—both human and animal—observed all who passed beneath. These gyáa’aang had witnessed many generations of Haida who gathered at the longhouse for potlatches, marriages, births and deaths for hundreds of years.
On this particular evening, the longhouse was packed to the rafters. From a distance, the rows of mullioned windows glowed amber as the oil-lamps burned within—power had not been fully restored to the island since the Tyee. It seemed as if the entire village had heard about Ol’ Pa’s discovery and wanted to see the shipwrecked girl for themselves. Chairs and tables filled the hall and, where there was no room to sit, villagers pressed themselves against the walls. The elders sat on the long bench near the end of the room and whispered amongst themselves as they sipped gángk’an from ceramic mugs. A large black raven perched quietly on the sill of an open window not far from the front doors.
Marta and her father sat near the table where the child rested, laying curled in a fetal position and staring impassively as Doc Gravin performed his examination. He listened to her breathing through his stethoscope, tapped her chest as she coughed and shined his otoscope into her ears and eyes. Marta leaned over to her father and whispered, “Why doesn’t she speak?”
“Well, I s’pose she’ll say something when she has something to say.”
Doc straightened up and looked around the room. “She’s a tough little survivor, this one. Aside from the cut on her head and a bout of chest cold, I’d pronounce her a pretty healthy little girl all in all—and a lucky one—very lucky.”
Eli Hammond the grocer, asked, “Has she said where she came from—how she got up here?”
“Not to me she hasn’t.” Doc said.
Marta inquired, “Do we know if she’s spoken at all… to anyone?”
Billy Telford leaned over from his bench against the wall and spoke. “She only moaned a little—y’know—when we set her in the buggy. Not a word after that for the entire ride back.”
Heads shook throughout the room and people began to murmur. The little girl had been in the village for several hours, but had not opened her mouth since regaining consciousness. Several voices from the back of the hall called out, “Has she been scanned yet?” … “Yeah, do we know if there’s an ID chip?” … “She’s Yáats’ Ýaat’áay, so she’s definitely got to have one.” … “That’s true—all the whiteys are chipped at birth these days.”
The chatter increased until at last Doc Gravin waved his hands to bring about order. “Quiet please, folks—let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I don’t have a scanner, so there’s no way of telling… but there’s nothing saying we can’t get over to the Greenwood to borrow theirs. Have any of their fetchers been spotted recently?”
The longhouse erupted in conversation as everyone spoke at once. Had the fetchers been across the strait? Were any of their tlúu spotted in the bay?… The consensus was that no one had seen any of the fetchers for the past few weeks. Annie Taw suggested that they send a message to the Greenwood in the morning, it was roundly approved by those gathered around.
“Where’s this hlk’ín-giid going to stay for now? who’s taking responsibility?” asked Russell Guujaw, one of the elders. Everyone looked around the room, wondering who would volunteer. It was one thing to rescue an outsider, but food and supplies were scarce these days. Who would be willing to share provisions with a stranger? Especially if that stranger brought trackers to the village.
A chair skidded noisily across the floor as Ol’ Pa rose to his feet. He stood up straight, hands resting on the tabletop for support. He looked around at his neighbors and said, “I will take care of the girl. Me and Marta, that is.”
Marta smiled as if she’d already guessed what her father was going to say.
Two and a half months had passed since the discovery of their young castaway. Autumn’s early morning chill crept up the island chain and lingered until well after noon on most days. The humpbacks had reappeared in Dixon Entrance; their colossal flukes slapping the water could be heard from shore. Haida’s fishermen took hope from the whales’ return, trusting that the chíin might soon follow. They mended lines and reinforced their nets in preparation for whatever sockeye run might appear. Families of young children prepared for the onset of classes. Old Massett’s schoolyear was off to a late start as a result of the Tyee disruption. Many children who lived in the more remote parts of Haida Gwaii had not been to the village since the earthquake. There was an air of excitement and anticipation in the town that had not been felt for quite a while.
Ol’ Pa sat on the front porch, splicing his fishing lines. The little girl sat cross-legged on the floor in front of him and stitched whippings into the bitter-end of each rope. She’d taken to the job naturally and needed no instruction. She bent her head over her handiwork, ringlets of her soft brown hair curtaining her face as she moved the needle in and out. The deep cut on her forehead had healed, in its place was a white scar that ran parallel to her eyebrow. The faded denim overalls that she’d been given hung loosely on her slender frame. Marta appeared from the kitchen holding two cups of salal tea, she paused on the other side of the screen door and smiled at the sight of them both diligently working. “You two might want to stop for some lunch now,” she said, opening the squeaky door with her foot. “There’s a plate on the table for anybody who’s hungry.”
The little girl smiled, dropped her needle and stitching palm onto the floorboards and sprinted past Marta. The door slammed noisily behind her. Marta set the cup on the table next to Ol’ Pa, he grunted thanks while parting the strands of the braided line. Marta shielded her eyes, watching several of the neighbor’s boys wrestling in their yard across the street. One of the older boys turned on a garden hose and sprayed his brothers. Their mother’s voice screamed from inside the house, “Táan Olsen—you turn off that hose right now!”
Marta turned to Ol’ Pa and said, “This little girl of ours needs some friends her own age.” Ol’ Pa snorted and shook his head, mumbling under his breath at the twisted pile of rope on his lap. “How will we ever get her to speak someday, if her only companion is an old cuss whose vocabulary consists of assorted harrumphs and grunts?” Marta put a hand on her hip, shifting her weight onto the same leg. “Look here, school’s going to begin soon—I believe she should be enrolled… That is, I mean, if they’ll accept her—being mute and all.”
Ol’ Pa continued with his splices. “I should think any teacher would appreciate a kid who can keep their mouth shut. “
“Chiinga, be serious.”
“I am being serious, woman. Have you walked by that damn school when it’s in session?” He paused for a moment and took a drink. “Ahhh, that tastes good.” Returning to his handiwork, he grumbled, “What is formal schooling worth nowadays? Our children should be taught the old ways—especially now. That’s how we’ve always survived, that is how we will continue to endure. Ýaat’áa k’adangéehl— ‘Haida educated’, daughter.”
“Yes Ol’ Pa, that’s true. But if we’re to exist in this world, we must continue to know the other ways too. And need I remind you—this child is not Haida.” Marta continued to watch the rowdy boys playing as she spoke. Inhaling deeply, she stated, “Nope, I’m going to register her for school this week. I’m just not sure how old she is… I’d guess about nine or ten, but who knows? And we don’t even know what to call her… What name should I put on the enrollment form?”
“Put down ‘Dot’. Her name is Dot.”
Marta snickered. “You’ve been calling her after the name of that old boat lately—what’s the story, Chiinga?”
“Well, it’s better than calling her nothing, and nothing is exactly what she says. I can think of a lot worse names than Dottie Rose for a little girl.”
“Alright, alright, old man, I’m not going to argue with you. We’ll play it your way. ‘Dot’ it shall be—for now. I suppose if she doesn’t like it, maybe she’ll say something about it.” Marta turned to open the screen door, she paused as if to add something, but just shrugged, smiled and said, “I think I’ll take Dot with me to pick some blackberries, can you survive by yourself for the afternoon?”
“Get on with you, woman.” Ol’ Pa waved his splicing fid in her direction as she closed the screen door.