Thunder's daughter decided it was time she went to visit another family of people far away to the south. She was hopeful she could find a man to marry from that village on the other side of the mountains. She had her wish come true. She met her man and soon a baby boy was born.
One day later on, when the rain took a rest from its long-distance marathon, she had an important errand to attend to on the lower slopes of the nearby mountain. She needed to collect cedar branches and roots for a few new burden baskets. The air was cherry ripe for her trek; she had seen May lilies reveal their white faces on a nurse log off the village trail. Spring colors were displacing the grays and whites of winter. Therefore, she told her husband that it would be best for their child and everyone in the village, if he would prevent anyone from taking care of their son. However, the mother had hardly left the path of the village of blue spruce, when the husband called for his mother to come and take care of the child. The grandmother arrived in a matter of minutes and did her best to care for the infant boy, but the child became seriously ill and died.
Not many suns later the mother returned from her gathering of cedar branches and roots, and heard from her husband what had happened. He tried to assure her that his mother did everything she possibly could to save the boy, but none of the remedies she tried helped. When the wife heard her husband's story, she felt the claw marks of grief scrape down her throat like a black bear ripping off the flesh of a young sapling. She looked as if the sky was collapsing on her shoulders, thus she turned to song rather than see herself break down to salt.
The mother began to step slowly in a circle around the village, and at the entrance of each longhouse, she sang to the people her song made of broken shells that rattled in the wind. As she kept dancing to close the circle, she slapped at her arms and back with a hoop of mussel shells, and whacked her hair off in clumps that she tossed toward each lodge. She sang another song to soothe the storm building in her lungs.
When she had stepped around the village for the third time, she sang to the people that if they had done what she asked, and not taken care of the baby so much, then her child would have grown into the tallest man on the Peninsula. Nevertheless, because the grandmother did come to care for her child, they must live with the knowledge that they would die more of disease than by natural death.
From the hidden places of their longhouses the people stared at the woman in silence. They were lost to act. They watched helplessly as the daughter of Thunder climbed into a canoe and left them with their own rippling figures disappearing in the waves and spray. The people stood facing the sea for a long, long time. They were thinking of their sacred mountain in the sky and sang in secret to this old, old grandfather. They asked this elder if he could take this burden basket from their shoulders. They watched her paddle strokes become reeds in a dream current and her canoe vanish at a point they too found themselves merging with the night darkness.
The story of this woman's journey traveled on, unraveling itself like a frayed feast basket, and in less than a season, every person living in the villages on the coast and along the Straits knew that she had returned to the longhouse of Thunder. Her father's nest was known to float above the highest mountain in the range like a cloud in the emerald sky. For the long paddle home she carried a basket of smoked herring to eat. She threw the bones into the sea near Vancouver Island, and that is why there are more herring there than anywhere else on the Straits, Sound, or even our coastline. She reached the lodge of Thunder and the people never heard her voice or drum again. Yet, the people born on the mats of red cedar learned to the depths of their being, just how many people die of disease.
Burien, Moon of Salmon's Return, 1999.
Duane Niatum was born in Seattle, Washington, and has spent most of his life in that once-upon-a-time evergreen city. Several of his essays on contemporary American Indian literature and art have been published in magazines and books, but he is better known for his poems and short fiction. The Crooked Beak of Love is his sixth book of poems (West End Press, Winter, 2000). The Pull of the Green Kite, his seventh book of poems, was just accepted for publication by a university press. A collection of sixteen stories based upon his Klallam people's myths and legends is currently making the rounds of the publishers. His poems, short stories, and essays have been translated into thirteen languages, including French, Italian, Spanish, and Russian. He is presently teaching in the Department of English, Western Washington University.