Silver Totem of Shame
Granville Island, Vancouver, British Columbia
He liked the staccato beat of rain drumming on the roof of the carving shed. It felt good knowing his ancestors would've heard this sound on Haida Gwaii while working on their own totem poles, and not the incessant thrumming of traffic crossing the bridge less than thirty metres above his head. The sound drove him crazy, until his hands started moving over the wood. Then the noise faded away with the steady rhythm of his carving. (insert photo of landscape on right as was done for Arctic Blue Death).
But with no shed of his own or hope of having one until he was out into the "real world," he had to rely on the charity of the only Haida carver he knew, Ernest Paul. Ern made a lot of money from carving totems and liked to brag that he had one standing in pretty near every major capital of the world.
Last month, Ern was in Tokyo for the raising of his latest, a huge fifteen-metre pole of red cedar that some Japanese billionaire had commissioned for his garden. At $6,500 a metre, only rich guys could afford them. The guy even had the nerve to insist that four watchmen sit on top instead of the usual two. They were supposed to represent his four kids, which wasn't exactly in the Haida tradition. But as Ern said, when a client paid the big bucks, he got what he wanted, which wasn't all that different from when the chiefs in the old days commissioned their poles.
He carefully laid his long-handled tools out on the table. Some were Ern's castoffs; others he'd made himself. Though they might not have the sharpest edges, they were his, about all he had to show that he was a carver. That and the two-inch scar from the time a chisel had slipped and sliced his hand almost to the bone. Fuck, it had hurt. A lot of blood had spurted out, much of it on the killer whale he'd been carving on one of Ern's smaller commissions. That was the first time he'd faced Haida anger in its full fury.
In time Ern had calmed down, although the master carver hadn't let him near another commission until now. And this wasn't especially important. It was a pro bono for the new healing lodge being set up in Vancouver's Eastside. If he cut himself this time, Ern wouldn't care. Besides, the blood would add to the legend of the pole.
He ran his hand over the smooth cedar and traced his fingers along the stenciled outline of the eagle he would start working on tonight. He remembered the first time he had cut into cedar. It'd felt like coming home. With that single cut he'd known this was where he belonged. This was who he was, a carver, not the lawyer his mother wanted him to be. He could almost feel the hand of an ancestor guiding his adze as it sliced into the soft, almost buttery, aromatic wood.
(Insert photo of totem pole on left) He breathed in the rich scent of the cedar. He imagined this is what it smelled like on Haida Gwaii, a place he'd never visited, despite it being the home of his people. Only in his dreams did he walk amongst the giant cedar and Sitka spruce trees that covered every inch of the mountainous islands. Someday, when he had the money, he would go. But he wouldn't tell his mother. She wouldn't like it. Just as she'd be upset if she found out he was in Ern's studio carving tonight instead of studying at the university.
He jerked his head up at a sudden sound that came from the back of the large, open workroom. He walked to where various lengths of logs lay stacked against the back wall. Although the brightness of the overhead lights didn't reach this far, he could see well enough with the light from the bridge filtering through the shed's transparent roof. Nothing looked disturbed. Likely the noise had been made by one of the stray cats that called the shed home.
He glanced out a back window. The tide was up. A big yacht was churning through the channel into False Creek. The lights of downtown Vancouver hovered beyond. He returned to his carving and was soon lost in the flow of the movement. His chisel bit into the outline of the eagle's beak. He would make it a strong, commanding beak, worthy of the king of birds. He felt a special affinity to the eagle. As a child, when his family vacationed on Galiano Island, he loved to watch them soar with the clouds and wished he could join them. He wondered if he belonged to the Eagle clan, but since he knew nothing about his birth mother, he'd never know. He couldn't ask his adoptive mother. She wouldn't know. She wouldn't think it important.
He didn't hear the rustling nor see the shadow moving from behind the stacked logs. He only became aware of a presence when the cold steel of a blade suddenly bit into his throat. By then it was too late. His one thought as he watched his blood gush over his almost perfect eagle was that this was going to make one hell of a story.
The man stared at the lifeless body. He waited. When he was sure he was alone, he picked up the boy's adze. Too bad about the kid; he would've made a great carver. But the matriarchs would've never let him be simply a carver.
The man continued where the boy had left off, etching the outline of the eagle's beak ever deeper as the blood flowed into the crease. He would make changes to this eagle. After all, he had a story to tell.
Want to read more? Buy Silver Totem of Shame