Tao of Raven (Excerpt)
These excerpts are from a work in progress titled The Tao of Raven, an Alaska Native Memoir, a work similar in structure to her first work, Blonde Indian, an Alaska Native Memoir. The current work follows the story of Old Tom as well as the writer's life after her return to Juneau, and contemplates the meaning of an ancient story from the perspective of a woman entering her eighth decade of life.
At a time so long ago it cannot be measured by the moon, nor can it be measured by the sun, if moon and sun had then been part of this life, darkness was upon the face of the world. This circumstance made it difficult for human beings to conduct their ordinary lives. For example, how much greater the difficulty to impress one another when life is conducted in the dark. How much greater the difficulty to choose a likely mate, how much more difficult to acknowledge one another’s significance and thereby increase one’s own importance. In a darkened world, the lighted way will not be inclined to reveal itself. Duty might appear, for the dark does not discourage an appearance of justice, and it might well lead to the proclamation of knowledge. But knowledge rarely shows us the way to harmony, and respect and devotion can neither be forced nor do they find their reason to begin or to diminish in the workings of another being’s demeanor. All these things can thrive in a darkened world.
Raven had always and not always been around to be amused at the pitiful antics of self-important human beings, and no doubt he found amusement in these conditions. But although he may have discerned intrigue and opportunity, although he may have sensed illicit adventure, although he could well have been distracted by the wonders he alone could see, nevertheless Raven decided to do something about the darkness.
Raven heard about an old man who lived with his daughter in a well-fortified house in an isolated place at the top of a river far away. This old man, it was said, kept in his house precious bentwood boxes in which could be found answers to the darkness. It was said that this old man guarded these boxes even more carefully than he guarded his daughter. He allowed his daughter to venture outside the house for such purposes as gathering roots and collecting water, but never did he allow his precious boxes to be removed from his house or even to be opened.
Raven decided that it was a good time to investigate. But when Raven traveled to that old man’s house built so close to the Nass River, he was unable to discover easy entry. In other words, there was no doorway through which he could be invited; there was no window through which he could climb. Though Raven walked around and around and around that old man’s house, he never was able to find a direct way to get inside.
But Raven noticed that every once in a while that old man’s daughter would somehow appear outside the house and carry a container down to the rippling water, where she filled the woven water-basket from the fresh clear stream. Although Raven studied her every move, he was unable to perceive how she gained entry back into the house.
These riddles kept him puzzling for what would have been days had there been daylight and for what would have been nights had there been stars. After much deliberation, Raven decided to transform himself into a pine needle and drop himself in that form into water that the old man’s daughter was about to drink, at which time that old man’s daughter, no doubt tasting water sweeter than she had tasted ever before, swallowed Raven in his pine-needle form. At some immediate inevitable moment, Raven transformed himself and was transformed and that old man’s daughter was now expectant with Raven-child. After a while Raven entered the guarded house and reentered the unguarded world in the manifestation of a newborn human baby, whereupon he became something more dear to that old man’s eyes than even those precious boxes of light.
The old man delighted in his Raven grandchild, playing peek-a-boo games and singing him lullabies and feeding him tender tidbits of salmon cheeks and the steamed eggs of seabirds. At those rare times that Raven fussed, the old man bounced baby Raven on his knee and nuzzled baby Raven’s neck and checked the moss around baby Raven’s sleeping place to make sure it was dry and soft and safe.
After Raven had satisfied himself that his grandparent loved him more than any other thing upon the face of Lingit Aani, he decided that it was time to cry for the bentwood boxes. No matter how strong the spirits that protected the boxes and the priceless objects inside, Raven must have been confident that the love his grandparent held for him was stronger.
When baby Raven cried for the first box, the old man at first must have thought to refuse. But according to his plan, Raven kept crying, and the old man finally gave in, just as Raven knew he would do. Then Raven opened the first bentwood box and admired all the stars it contained. After only a while, Raven tossed the stars into the sky, and the world became brighter by the measure of one box of starlight, and the old man’s house became darker in the same regard.
Again according to plan, Raven cried for the next bentwood box. As Raven thought he would do, the old man again said no, and when Raven kept crying, the old man finally gave in, as Raven knew he would do. Raven opened the second precious box, this one containing the moon. Raven admired the moon for just a little while, and then he tossed the moon into the sky, and the world became brighter by the measure of one box of moonlight, and the old man’s house became darker in the same regard.
Raven now cried for the last bentwood box. As Raven thought he would do, that old man resisted more than all the other times. And when Raven kept crying, the old man gave in, just as Raven knew that old grandparent would do. And so it was that Raven opened the last precious box, and after Raven had struggled the light into the newly lighted world, our world became brighter by the measure of one box of daylight, and the old man’s house became dark.
Although he’d been resting and eating and amusing himself with playthings from carved boxes, we can trust that Raven’s strength was never exhausted, his attention never so concentrated that he was not prepared to recognize opportunity should opportunity arise. Surely he knew that as soon as the shadows in his grandfather’s house began to fade in the light of emancipated moon and unbound stars, it would be time to make his boldest move. Surely at that eternal moment when that old man caught a glimpse of Raven’s uncovered truth, at that moment when Raven recognized that he was undone, he must immediately have chosen another strategy to take him away with little loss to himself and no loss to the world, loss only to his unhappy mother and to the loving grandfather who, seeing his dearest grandchild making off with his most cherished treasure, must have been willing to forfeit every luminous filament of his long-defended wealth for only one more moment of his grandbaby’s honest smile, only one more moment of his grandchild’s grateful embrace, only one more precious moment of his grandson’s whimsical promises. But this life would never again present those brilliant moments for that old man’s ready solace. It was no longer he who controlled his grandson’s path. If, that is, he ever did control the path of Raven’s actions, the path of Raven’s choices, the path of Raven’s thoughts. No matter. Despite all his grandfather’s sorrow, despite his grandfather’s disappointment, it was only Raven who now defined the direction in which Raven himself would proceed. Like all of us, it was only Raven who had ever defined his own path.
Raven could well have decided to keep light and luster and blinding brilliance for only his own pleasure, but he knew that to keep riches to oneself guarantees their decline. In this regard, Raven was wiser than even that old man who had sought to hold those owned things in those hidden boxes and never show them to any but his own precious loved ones. That old man hadn’t learned the human lesson that when we hold our precious owned things for only our chosen loved ones, to be brought out and meted one by one as though to a crying child, the chances are great that our own loved ones will not respect the individual worth of our precious treasures and will steal them for themselves and for the world.
How must Raven’s grandfather have felt at the knowledge that his own grandchild had stolen from his store of treasure? Did that knowledge cost him far more heartbreak than losing his precious box of starlight, losing his cherished box of moonlight, losing his irreplaceable sun? And Raven’s mother, what of her? How did that woman feel, after sheltering Raven in her womb for what would have been months if the moon had been free to calculate the passage of that time? At the instant that Raven burst through the smoke-hole with the final prize, at the instant of his escape, the light of the uncaptured sun he thought he carried but which was after all only using Raven to give itself to the world must have ignited the air between the heartbroken old man and his suddenly old daughter and the glimpse they shared must have contained all the heartache of every mother and every father and every grandparent and every lover and every friend who has ever been betrayed.
Summer days in Juneau were sweeter when I was a girl, the breezes more gentle, the sun’s rays warmer, laughter more spontaneous, the possible future imprecise but somehow bright. The distinctions that had divided me from other children—wrinkled dirty clothes, absence of family at schooltime celebrations, unclean fingernails and dirty hands, no doubt a salty, unwashed smell—had eased upon my mother’s return from her long tubercular stay in the hospital, and the coming separation from my classmates that would arrive with puberty was still no more than a wistfully approaching shadow. At that in-between age, anyone I met on my summer-day wanderings might become a one-day friend. Anyone might join me for a rambling day of hiking up Mt. Roberts, wading down Gold Creek, fishing off the city dock. So it was that morning I met two or three classmates, not quite strangers, not at all friends, white kids who lived in neighborhoods I didn’t know, who wore clothes that were purchased from places other than the mail-order catalogs my mother and I so eagerly anticipated, who attended churches where their parents—mothers and fathers praying together at elegant polished pews, walking hand in arm from dusted doorstep to reserved parking place, living together in veiled discontent and virtuous disapproval—or was that simply what I’d already learned to tell myself in order to construct solace in an unconsoling world—gave thanks to a just god that had arranged their success and guaranteed their continued privilege and that of their blessed children, in whom they were all so well pleased. After some hellos, we decided to walk over to the docks to try out the new fishing pole one of them had just been given by his father. I promised to take a picture with my mother’s Kodak she had lovingly consigned to me for the summer.
The experience of fishing off the docks was always marred for me by the sight of the struggling gasping creature, eyes bugged, delirious, terrified, bloody hook pulling at its thin lip, fighting with all the might of its soon-to-be succulent flesh for the freedom of the green water lapping the slimy barnacle-covered pilings beneath our feet. My own escapades at fishing had mainly been limited to hunting for already-severed halibut heads outside the loud wide doors of the cold storage which in a year or two would burst into a fire so large it woke the whole town, including my mother, who would walk me by the hand to witness the extraordinary sight of high flames lighting the unstarred darkness.
Our chatter was that of children, the excitement of a nibble now and then neither fulfilled nor defeated by success or by failure. It was enough to be alive. I sensed the possibilities contained in friendship with these extraordinary children, the promise of entry, a relief from freedom, the security of belonging. Along with their friendship might come comfort, might come knowledge, might come understanding. Along with their friendship might come acceptance. I might be included. I might belong.
The blond-haired boy began to snigger. “Look at that drunk Indian carrying that fish. Let’s get out of here.” He pointed southward down the dock and began to wind in his line. I followed his eyes in the direction of his pointing finger to see an old man in a greasy wool jacket, dark fisherman’s knit cap covering his head, a fresh halibut glistening from a length of twine wrapped around his fist.
I squinted. “That's my grandfather,” I announced to the boy and his fidgety, giggling companions.
Everyone tried to be quiet as my grandfather walked toward us. The other children, their derision ill concealed by poor attempts to cover their snorts of laughter, took hesitant steps backward as my grandfather neared. Finally we all stood too close to one another, within the distance of a man’s height, his reach, his life, the white children I’d dared to imagine as my friends staging their retreat behind me, ready to dash for the safety of another world, my grandfather in front of me, offering a whiskered smile, saluting me with the heavy flatfish he proudly held up for my regard and admiration, I at the torn seam of two worlds, dreams faded like dappling sunlight, the only choice no choice at all, to embrace the life that had been designed for me no less than the lives that had been designed by these children’s parents for us all, to give back the proud smile my grandfather offered, to know that despite the fish slime, despite the days-old whiskers, despite the headache and lost fingers and sharp grief, here was a man who understood what it meant to be proud. I took his picture and gave him a hug. I admired the salt-fresh fish. We both knew he would sell it to some lucky cook and would use the money to buy more wine. We both knew it would take far more than a sunny afternoon to make friends of those soft pink, privileged children. We both knew that those children’s fathers, though they ran the town and ran the schools and ran the courts and ran our lives, would never possess the courage that my grandfather showed every day by simply going on. We both knew that even though halibut cheeks were my mother’s favorite summer meal and even though there was no chance that we might fry one up tonight, my grandfather loved me as much as any grandfather had ever loved his wild unreliable unpredictable grandchild.
The next time I saw those children, as we passed each other in the halls of the school designed to exalt them, we didn’t speak.
Inside that now dark house, Raven’s grandfather sits alone in the now-darkened shadows. He tries to overcome the sorrow that has been delivered by his beloved grandchild’s deceit. He tries to clear his thoughts. He tries to accept the nature of this world. Take my treasure, he must think. I give it to you freely. I ask nothing from you except that you remain healthy and continue to live. I ask only that you do not kill me. And of these two things that I ask of you, for you to remain healthy is my greater wish. Remain healthy, and try not to kill me.
A woman sits alone in the lightening shadows at the edge of the once dark stream. She longs for the sight of a pine needle floating toward her in the unclear waters, for the unfamiliar taste of the promise of a new tomorrow, for the sound of the voice of future generations crying for everything their outer shells can give.
Outside, a raven calls.