The Raven’s Head Dagger and the Custom of the Seas – Part 1 of 5

Stephanie Munro travels by sailboat to the edge of the world, with friends she thought she knew. But when things go wrong, they go very, very wrong…

CatholicGuilt-682x1024The Raven’s Head Dagger and the Custom of the Seas
Part 1 of 5

by Regan Wolfrom

One of the nine stories from Catholic Guilt and the Joy of Hating Men. One I keep thinking about, almost a year after I wrote it.

 

SUNDAY

BRECCAN HATED the young boys of Skidegate most of all. I thought it was cute how awkward they were.

A handful of the native kids circled us a few times while we were walking along the beach, their gaze squarely aimed at her see-through stockings and the ink-blot tattoos underneath.

“Little perverts,” she’d called them. She liked to forget that the way she dressed brought a similar response from most guys. It’s probably the number one reason we’d been invited along on this trip in the first place.

And the reason Breccan gets a lot of things in life…

We left port just before lunch, since it makes sense to stock up on groceries at the Co-op and eat en route, rather than spend another meal at one of the handful of restaurants in Queen Charlotte City, which is about as much of a city as Darrel is a sailboat captain.

That is to say, Darrel sucks at it. Or blows chunks, as we used to say in junior high.

Darrel took us down the coast of Moresby Island and the smaller islands beside it, tracing in and out of the inlets in the rain and fog. Seeing that made everything else worth it. You forget about how much people can get on your nerves on a small boat when you’re looking out at the edge of the world.

We saw the sun come out just as we were thinking about dinner, so Jon and I made some sandwiches so we could go ashore for a final picnic in Haida Gwaii. Jon made a couple extra for himself, as usual; he’s a big guy, and it’s not all muscle.

Darrel found our way to Hotspring Island, radioing the Watchmen for permission to drop in. They told us it had been pretty quiet for a weekend in late August, and invited us ashore.

One of the Watchmen met us as we clambered onto the beach after anchoring offshore, dressed in a red rain jacket with a round hat made from tree bark. He looked a little younger than us, which surprised me, and to be honest I had trouble telling if he was anything other than just another white guy from Coquitlam or wherever.

“Hello,” the man said. “I’m Paul. Sánuu dáng gíidang? How are you doing?”

He seemed to be looking at me more than anyone else. I walked over and offered my hand. “Hi… I’m Steph. Thanks for letting us visit.”

“It’s always good to have visitors in Xaadala Gwayee. Keeps me busy.”

“We brought a picnic,” Breccan said. “Is that going to be a problem?”

“That’s fine,” Paul said. “There’s a great place up the trail I can show you.”

“You’re coming with us?” Breccan was already going full on bitch mode. “We didn’t pack enough sandwiches for you.”

“Breccan…” I said quietly, hoping she’d just stop talking.

The Watchman didn’t seem to be bothered by it. I guess Breccan is a certain type of girl we’ve all gotten used to. I’ve lived with her since we started at UBC; I don’t notice it most of the time.

“My mother grew up in Masset,” Darrel said.

“My family is from there,” Paul said. “I live in Vancouver the rest of the year.”

“We’re probably neighbours,” I said. Then I felt a little stupid.

He grinned. “Could be. Are you that girl in my building who sings ‘Gagnam Style’ in the shower each morning?”

I laughed. “I have a few more songs on my playlist.”

He brought us up to an overlook with a small bench. It was hard for all four of us to even fit there, and Paul just stood to the side like he was part of the scenery.

Breccan kept giving me weird looks while we ate, but without saying much I couldn’t tell if she was creeped out by Paul’s very existence or just creeped out that I was being nice to him.

I didn’t think there was anything creepy about him; after a week and a half with Darrel and Jon it was nice to meet a guy I didn’t want to whack with a paddle.

After we ate Paul led us back down to the changerooms, and then we showered and tried the hot spring pool by the beach. Breccan had snuck a flask into the water but I didn’t feel right drinking from it. I wasn’t surprised to find I was the only one who felt that way.

It started to rain again.

“Do they ever have a day without rain?” Breccan said.

“It’s part of the mystique,” Jon said. “I feel like this is the perfect setting for some kind of fantasy epic. A Song of Fog and More Fog.”

“You’re seriously the funniest virgin I’ve ever known,” Darrel said.

“I’ll be glad to get home to sunny Vancouver,” Breccan said. “It’s like the Sahara compared to this place.”

“I like this place,” I said, hoping that Paul was listening. I imagine that’s part of the job of a watchman. “The Realm of Fairy is a strange shadow land, lying just beyond the fields we know.”

Breccan groaned. “Shit. You’re getting poetic again.”

“And I’m not even drunk.”

“It’s rainy here because Raven stole the sun,” Darrel said. “That is the story.”

“That’s not the story,” Paul said, stepping towards the pool. “A chief was keeping the light in a treasure box, leaving the rest of the world in darkness. Raven tricked him by sneaking inside the chief’s daughter and emerging as a baby.”

“Virgin birth,” Jon said. “I read about that somewhere.”

Paul didn’t acknowledge the interruption. “He grew into a small child, and begged his grandfather to let him see the light. The chief finally gave in and opened the box. He took out the light and threw it to his grandson, but Raven transformed into a bird once again and grabbed the ball of light with his beak. He flew up through the smokehole of the house and brought the light up to the sky, where it remains to this day. And scene.”

“You’re telling us there’s a sun somewhere up there?” Breccan said. “Sounds like your Raven Jesus didn’t do that great of a job.”

“That’s not funny, Breccan,” I said.

“It’s a little funny,” Darrel said. “Besides, I was the one who was telling the story in the first place.”

“Sorry,” Paul said. “I get carried away sometimes.”

“I guess it’s your job. Telling fairy tales to tourists.” He gave a little nod, obviously impressed with himself.

Paul shook his head but he didn’t take the bait.

I was feeling a little hot and a lot uncomfortable. I stood up from the pool.

“Fun’s over?” Darrel asked.

I shrugged.

Breccan followed me out of the pool, and we went together to get changed.

Darrel and Jon were still in the pool when we returned.

Paul had stepped back a little, and I could tell he didn’t feel particularly wanted.

“We took a vote,” Jon said. “We’re staying in this pool forever.”

“Sounds good,” I said. I nodded to Paul. “Do you know how to sail a ketch?”

“How do you think I got here?” he said. “Have you seen how much the ferry to the mainland costs?”

“You sailed up from Vancouver, too, eh?” Darrel said. He sounded a little pissed off.

“It’s a pretty long trip by canoe.”

“Heh. I guess you’ve got plenty of time to sail in your line of work.”

“That’s true. Mortgage brokers can get a lot of papers signed out on the water. You learn to compensate for all the rocking on the boat.”

“Mortgage broker. So you’re like a bank teller?”

“Pretty much,” Paul said, unaffected. “I got my start as an ATM machine. The 24-hour shifts were murder.”

“I… I guess it’s good that there are jobs for people who don’t have degrees.” He was flailing. He couldn’t think of anything clever.

I loved watching him squirm.

“So didn’t you say there’s a village site on the island, Darrel?” Jon asked.

“Yeah,” Darrel said, sounding more than a little relieved at the well-timed change of subject.

“Not much left,” Paul replied. “I can show you guys if you want.”

“That would be great,” I said. “Thank you.”

He smiled at me. “We don’t know much about this village.”

“How can that be?” Breccan asked. “Don’t you guys keep records?”

His smile faded. “We lost a lot,” he said. “The people who live in Haida Gwaii today are descendants of a handful of survivors. Smallpox, typhoid, measles…”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He nodded. “I’m just glad we’re still here.”

A raven sounded out from above us, and I looked up to see it circling.

“That’s Edgar,” Paul said. “He’s kind of a big deal around here.”

That made me laugh. “How can you tell him from all the other ravens?” I asked.

“He’s huge. That’s the easiest way to tell. That and he’s alone.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Edgar used to have a partner in crime almost as big. The guys named her Poesy. Like Edgar Allan…”

“Cute. What happened to her?”

“She disappeared over the winter. By the time we got here this season she was gone.”

“That’s sad,” I said.

“We’ve all been hoping that he’ll find a new favourite soon. But it hasn’t happened yet.”

“It’s just a bird,” Darrel said.

Jon laughed. “Yeah. Ravens are just crows with better PR.”

I closed my eyes for a brief second and envisioned the paddle. I could take them both out. With just one whack…

Paul took us to where the village once stood, but there was really nothing there to see. He pointed out what was probably old house sites, but it was impossible to know how much of what he was saying was true and how much was just a guess.

I didn’t blame him for wanting to know more about the place. It’s hard to imagine being in a place from your people that disappeared so completely that no one even knows its name.

I asked as many questions as I could come up with; I know Darrel was interested in it, too, but he was too butthurt to let anyone know that.

“I like to think that this village once belonged to the Children of Raven,” Paul said. “But I’ve got nothing to back that up. You know… besides Edgar.”

“I’m pretty sure the clans lived together,” Darrel said.

“The moieties live together now, but in the beginning each lived apart. My clan is one of the Raven clans.”

“Good for you, Paul. Good for you.”

“Well I think it’s pretty interesting,” I said.

“I think I’m gonna head back for another dip,” Breccan said. “All this testosterone is making me dizzy.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Jon said, with a yawn for good measure.

She and Jon started back to the beach, and Darrel followed behind.

“You’re going, too?” Paul asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Got anything else to tell me?”

“Not much about that village.”

“You can tell me about being a mortgage broker. Just… uh… try to make it dazzling.”

He laughed.

I heard Edgar cawing overhead.

“I’m sorry about before,” I said.

“What was before? Don’t tell me you’re the one who brought us syphilis.”

I hadn’t expected that.

“People don’t really get what this nation is about,” he said. “I’d say there’s at least one guy every week who asks me about teepees.”

“Well, Darrel should know better.”

“He was trying to impress you.” He paused and clicked his tongue. “Uh… I’ve been trying to impress you, too.”

“I’m easy to impress. I find common household implements to be fascinating.”

“If you like that, you’ll love my take on reconveyance fees.”

Edgar cawed again.

“He’s pretty opinionated,” I said, nodding upward.

“He likes you.”

“Who doesn’t? Obviously I remind him of one of his exes.”

Paul didn’t laugh at that.

I realized that I’d sounded a little bit like Breccan.

“It’s pretty cool that you’re out here,” I said to him. “Sometimes I wish I had more of a connection to my roots.”

“You’re what, Scottish?” he asked.

“You can tell?”

“It’s the freckles. Well, that and the patch on your backpack. Clan Munro. With a little eagle and everything.”

“You mean a ferocious eagle,” I said. “A tear-your-entrails-from out-your-rear kind of eagle. And don’t you forget it.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I smiled and tapped my hand against his shoulder. “A raven and an eagle,” I said. “So now do we fight or something?”

“We’re supposed to kiss.”

I could feel the blush. “Wow… you’re, uh, forward.”

He was blushing, too. “Sorry. That’s not what I meant. I mean… a member of a Raven clan was supposed to marry a member of an Eagle clan.”

“Oh, okay… now I don’t think you’re easy.”

“Thanks.” He looked away. “Thanks for listening to me drone on about this place.” He turned back to look right into my eyes, almost like he was forcing himself to do it. Not exactly a compliment.

“It was nice,” I said. “I liked it.”

“I really enjoyed this,” he said. He seemed shy all of a sudden.

I knew what to do. “We should meet up back in the city,” I said. “You know… get to know the girl outside beyond the shower singalongs.”

He smiled. “I’d like that.”

I pulled out my phone and he gave me his number.

“I won’t have it back on until I get home,” he said. “Cell phones aren’t very Watchman-like.”

I nodded. “I should get back to the beach,” I said.

For a moment I thought he was going to kiss me. But it didn’t happen. But that was okay; he gave my hand a little squeeze instead.

And Edgar cawed. Like he’d been watching us.

I guess he had been watching us.

“Ravens are smarter than we give them credit for,” Paul said. “They’re really good at taking things that don’t belong to them.” He pointed up to the sky. “You stay away from this one, Edgar.”

“You’re a little territorial,” I said.

“With Edgar I have to be. I had a friend drop off a huge bucket of fresh blackberries last week. They started disappearing and I blamed the other watchmen. Then one night I caught Edgar in the kitchen, eating away. He’d managed to figure out how to open the door of the cabin just so he could steal my berries.”

“That makes him smarter than most of my friends,” I said.

He smiled and gave my hand another squeeze.

Paul walked me back to the beach and I dipped my legs in the pool, and after another twenty minutes or so I was back on board with Breccan and the guys. The sun was going to set soon, so we didn’t go too much farther south before we found a place to anchor for the night.

I fell asleep wondering if Paul would’ve seemed so interesting dressed in khakis and a pop out collar on Robson Street.

>> onward to Part 2

 

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