If this (or something like it) was chapter one, would you read more?
A friend brought me a book the other day, The Heaviness of Things That Float, by Jennifer Manual. I started dipping into it at first, just a few pages here and there … but as soon as I started reading it, my heart started digging….
Digging sharp and deep, like razor clams being dug in the broad, dark sands of the beach stretching from Tow Hill towards Rose Spit, the clam digger’s little shovel thrusting downward into the tell-tale tiny circles in the hard low-tide sand. Chasing after the clams as they race deeper, deeper, toward the centre of the earth, shooting a stream of water behind them in a desperate bid to escape being caught, to escape being dragged back up into the daylight and ultimately into the pot of chowder that awaits them if they are caught.
Sometimes the clams are caught quickly, smoothly, easily, pulled out and tossed in one smooth, practised motion into a sandy five-gallon bucket along with other unfortunates. Their heads squirm, their whole shells squirm, and their voices cry out. Weeping, salty tears rush out at first and then drip slower and slower as the creatures try desperately to escape back to their dark tomb-like homes, back to assurance of life.
Other times, they are caught only for a brief moment as the clam digger’s hand dashes after them down the hole, following the path led by the small, sharp shovel’s blade. The hand grabs, clutches at the slippery, disappearing brown-striped treasure, gaining a brief hold, and then losing it as the shell’s sharp edges dig into the pursuing hand a bit too deeply, forcing it to momentarily lose its grip. Then the clam victoriously and silently slips deeper, out of reach for this day at least.
Or (and how I have hated seeing this) the closest end of the thin shell snaps off in the clam digger’s hand as he pulls his prey to the surface, sometimes with part of the clam squeezed inside. Left behind in what remains of the shell, the shattered remains are buried as tidewater-logged sand caves in, wraps it, buries it, smothers it in a cold dark tomb that can no longer offer the life and protection promised moments earlier.
Yet sometimes the clam is fast enough, or the digger slow enough, or both-—who knows?—-that it seems the prey has simply disappeared, in an instant. Some diggers will anxiously plunge the shovel over and over and over into the sand, seeking desperately to find the lost trophy, but to no avail. It simply has gone. Vanished. Its pursuer vanquished.
And overhead, the world of grey, cloudy skies looks on, watching the rhythm of life, as it has for thousands of years. Watching since a time before time was counted, back to the day of beginnings when Raven curiously opened a clam shell on this very beach. When tiny creatures tumbled out onto the sand, and shakily stretched their legs, and rose to their feet, and started to grow and to fill this land–those first humans of this Haida Gwaii, these islands of the Haadaa, the people.
As I write these words, as these memories are dug from the depths of my heart, I look at the wall beside me. I see a painting one of my own Haida children created years ago, depicting that story. And I remember my own small people rising and standing and growing and stepping out bravely into a new world, a changing world, yet a world that will always be anchored for them in the memories of these islands and of their ancestors that speak to them and through them, no matter where they may go. Born of these islands, they will always be bound to them.
I too was conceived on these islands, and my first two years of childhood were spent on them, although I did not return until I was an adult. My white skin proclaims to the world that I do not truly belong, I do not originate from them. But my heart tells another story, a story I cannot escape, no matter how long and how far I roam. These islands haunt my dreams, night after night, even through years since I left their shores. They whisper plaintively to me in the mediocre winds and the thin, tasteless, saltless spray of inland lakes and summer rain in this desert place so different, so far away from them. They call like phantom voices, begging me to return.
These islands beg me to return to the wild southeasters that splatter huge drops of rain sideways, dumped from the endless grey cloud-buckets scudding overhead, blowing, soaking into every nook and cranny of my being, no matter the layered rain slickers and tall the rubber boots that hopelessly try to shield. Where the saltiness of sea-spray and rain leaves my hair clumpy, seeps between my lips and fills my mouth with its potent flavour.
These islands beg me to return to the squawking call of Raven as his black-winged body swoops down from the dark, raindrop sparkling branches of a great green cedar or blue spruce on the rocky, forested shoreline. To watch him land with a hop-hop-hop on the patch of clam digger’s frenzied dug-up sand, and nimbly pull out and gulp the clam who moments before had been smugly celebrating another day of life, celebrating his escape from man. Raven and clam. Clam and man. Raven and man. A never-ending circle of life.
The Haida know a kind of reincarnation. A returning of the spirit of a recently passed family member, to enter a new-born child–a child who will show, for the rest of its life, personality traits and talents and skills, and even the voice or the walk of the one who had been called to life in the sky world, but had chosen to stay on for another round in this one. And they know, too, a kind of reincarnation on another level. The salmon and the clam and the wild strawberry and the cedar tree giving of themselves, giving up their life-force, so that the haadaa laas, the good people, can live and grow. And the people, in return, pray permission to take of the life of the land and, given that permission, give thanks and honour and respect. Yahgu dang ang. For all creation has the life-stamp of the Creator, of Salanna, and all participate in the circle that goes on and on.
Overhead, Eagle perches straight and tall on the barren, upper wind-stripped branches of a tall hemlock, then spreads his great wings and leaps into the river of wind currents. He rises higher, higher, with the strength of the islands below spread out over the earth and the surrounding ocean far below. Great grey waves pound, pound, pound on the rocky outcroppings at the foot of Tow Hill, the remains, geologists tell us, of a great volcano whose ancient core forms the towering bluffs of the hill that rises straight up from the flat lands around it. Or perhaps, as a young Haida story-maker has told it not so long ago, the rocky outcroppings are the remains, the marker, of a great whale, its blow-hole still spewing great sprays of salt water. A whale that rescued a young warrior from the sea, and brought him safely to these shores, giving up its own life in the struggle against the crashing, icy-gray waves.
When the tide drops and the waves withdraw for a few hours, the rocks at the foot of Tow Hill are studded with tide pools, full of life. Nearby, great, wide waves slap onto broad, sandy beaches that spread far, far out to the tip of Rose Spit, and the bubbly tips of the waves slide upwards across the sand, slowing until they pop and dissipate and disappear into oneness with the tide-soaked miles of shoreline. On the sand, a ragged line of kelp and tangled twigs and dancing sand-fleas mark the reach of this day’s high tide, and higher on the beach, where the black sand turns to ever-paler shades of gray as the ocean’s grip lessens, agates sparkle in the sun when it breaks gloriously through the clouds. And shells lie scattered, tossed by the highest tides or dropped by Raven or Crow after they have inhaled the contents of the rich sea-life within the calcium coverings.
And yet farther up the shore, is the great whitened bone yard of driftwood, trees that lived a hundred years, or a thousand, or more, and then fell back to the earth from which they took their life. Great bones that were picked up by rivers and tides and washed far from the soil of their roots to rest on another shore. And beyond them, small plants take root on the sand, some places on great dunes, some places on wild, windswept fields. They reach down their roots, clinging, to hold this new land in place, to do their part in moulding the ever-changing shoreline of these islands. Among these tiny, hardy plants, small red spots sparkle, drawing the eye to countless wild strawberries. Tiny they may be, but they too are an integral part of the circle of life, as they release the sweetest, juiciest taste imaginable in a single tiny bite.
And behind the sandy fields and dunes, the forest. And bogs of healthy, delectable red water. And open spaces filled with huckleberries and salmonberries. And deer and bear and elk and endless other creatures filling their bellies with the richness of the forests and meadows and muskegs and rivers and mountains. And scattered here and there, along the shorelines or at the heads of inlets where salmon-rich rivers run into the salty sea-water, lie communities of man.
Norma J Hill
Original draft June 24, 2016
This draft January 19, 2017
(Suggestions and corrections gratefully accepted!)
The two things that hit me right away was….it bothered me that I didn’t know where this story is taking place until way late. As a Canadian if you mentioned Haida closer to the top then I would guess it is the Islands. Non-Canadian…still no clue at all. The other is I really dug (no pun intended) the clam opening . Why? Because it is action, is beautifully written and I was curious how to catch clams. Then the rain…oh. oh…you lost me. Not so interesting because I know all about grey skies and rain and not because I too have lived on the Rupert coastline. From then on what I was really interested in was the Haida legends (Raven, Crow?) You have intimate knowledge so please share more. Non-Canadians love this too I hear — maybe because this is uniquely Canadian and a little mystical. All that stuff in your story about legends I would eat it up and beg for more.
The last three paragraphs are again more beautifully crafted description but I know I as a reader and many others will only take so much in this our 21st century of instant gratification. Apparently description is so yesterday. But! Instead of letting the Haida legends seep out from the description I would find it easier to stay with it if the description was pushed to the underside of the legend. Sneak it in and let me imagine Haida Gwai as through the legends rather than just straight description. This is what I understand from the experts…easy on the description unless it directly relates to the plot or action.
So to answer your question: Yes I would continue for the above reasons.
Just my thoughts as a reader. I’m nowhere near your league yet as a writer and thanks for sharing your gift.
Thank you so much for your detailed response, Lee. It has given me strong direction and encouragement. So much appreciated!
I’m envious of your ability to describe the environment in such telling detail. I was there with you – even in the rain, which is so much a part of coastal living. My only thought about your approach is that it feels a bit impersonal. I’d have preferred a first-person narrative right from paragraph one. I agree with Lee that you’ve captured a mythical land that intrigues all of us. There’s a tantalizing hint of a mystery with your references to the circle of life, then ending with the communities of man – almost as though life & death were about to be spotlighted in the community. Beautiful, beautiful!
Thank you so much for your encouraging reply! And yes, I really need to make it first-person anecdotal/narrative. This is something I always advise my clients to do–and then fail to do it myself! See, I need an editor, too 🙂 I think maybe I’m a bit “afraid” to go “first-person” because it might take me deep into some things I’ve been hesitant to face … and I’m also concerned about writing about aboriginal issues as a non-aboriginal (even though I’ve been married to a FN man for 35 years). Yes, the “communities of man” is definitely meant to be a transition sentence… Thank you so much for your input, my friend.