April 24, 2011

Creating Myths

I've mentioned this before, but I grew up in an idyllic place in SouthCentral Alaska, a place with a history rich in interesting anecdotes and colorful people. One of the town's more fasinating stories dates back to 1778 when the British sea captain, James Cook, discovered the bay at the mouth of the Kenai River.

When the Athabascan Indians who lived there saw Captain Cook’s ships, Resolution and Discovery, they thought the vessels were whales of a breed they’d never seen before. So, a few of them approached in seal-skin canoes to investigate. When they got close, they were met by a stench that caused many of them to get sick. Shipbuilders at the time sealed the hulls of large ships with tar to protect the timbers. The Indians had never smelled anything like it, but a few brave souls ventured onto the ships and were immediately amazed by the things they saw.

In particular, two observations had a lasting influence on them. First, the Athabascans had never seen people smoke tobacco before and they found the habit fascinating. Second, they were amazed by the unusual clothing that Cook's men wore and they were especially impressed with the rows of brass buttons sewed onto the men's sleeves. Later that day, the natives returned to their village with an astonishing, but perfectly understandable, story. They had met a fire-eating and smoke-breathing breed of men, who had arms like octopi and lived on the dead and decaying carcasses whales.

I tell you this story to illustrate a point: It’s quite easy to create and perpetuate a myth, and that’s true for religious concepts, as well. You'll see below another excerpt from Autumn Run that illustrates the point. 

Jesse Toyonek’s life went topsy-turvy when his niece returned to the village.  She’d been away at school, getting her head filled with strange notions, and came back like a whirlwind of opinions.  It was her idea, for example, that Jesse get a job and make something of himself.  But from the day he left for the Aleutians—a letter in his pocket promising him work—his only wish was to return home to the Killborn River. 
If he’d been told he was on the moon, Jesse might have believed it.  There were no tundra-covered valleys spilling out of mountain passes, no stands of timber.  He saw only craggy hillsides, occasional tufts of grass, and the ocean surging around him.  The co-workers with whom he shared a barracks could have been from another world, too.  They were white kids on break from college, who talked of little else but sex and money.  To Jesse—a thirty-five year-old virgin with no bank account in his name—their chatter amounted to nonsense.  He’d never been among so many people, yet he’d never felt so lonely.
Then came a day worse than all the rest, a day bad enough to make him ache for the Dutch Harbor cannery where he butchered fish.  He was hauling gillnet to a beach site across the bay when a fog came up.  A few hours later he was still in the skiff, unsure of his location and out of gas.  Throughout the day and the next night he drifted about in the tide, the fog so thick it soaked his black hair and formed droplets that rolled down his glasses.  He rowed to stay headlong into the swells and bailed as water spilled over the bow. 
Jesse wished for the wisdom of the old ones.  In sealskin kayaks his people had once traveled the ocean and understood it in ways long since forgotten.  From changes in water color, crosscurrents, and whirlpools, they could tell the location of land and bad weather beyond their sight.  What would he give for that knowledge now?
He’d almost lost hope of ever seeing home again, when the fog turned to wisps and scattered in a rising wind.  With a view to the horizon, however, a sense came to him that he was alone in a world without end.  The water grew rough.  His body hurt from exertion and cold.  He almost wished for the fog’s return, until he glanced over his shoulder and saw land in the distance.  Jesse wondered how far it might be: one mile, or a hundred.
He stole another glimpse at the island and noticed spray rising off the shore, an indication that it was close.  Even better, the wind and tide combined to push him toward it.  In time he spotted a narrow beach pressed between steep bluffs.  He aimed for the haulout and heaved with all his might across the chop.  For an hour he worked the paddles, his back feeling like it might snap.  The closer he approached, the more violent the sea became.  White water threatened to swamp him, but he held his course. 
When the hull finally scraped bottom, Jesse leaped overboard and wrestled the skiff forward.  He came out of the water and fell, as limp as the seaweed surrounding him.  His cheek struck rock and gravel before exhaustion raised a wall between his thoughts and everything outside his head.  In seconds he was neither asleep nor fully conscious, but in a limbo between the two.


Time passed and Jesse became aware of movement, only to realize it was his own body shivering.  He wanted rest, but knew he needed a fire.  In agony he pushed himself to his knees, cleaned the salt off his glasses and scanned his surroundings.  The tide was ebbing and the skiff was nearly out of the water.  He stood to secure it and the effort to hoist the anchor overboard brought tears to his eyes. 
Jesse took a seat in the back of the boat, his legs thigh-deep in seawater, and released the drain plug.  As the water spilled, he checked a storage bin for anything useful and found a waterproof bag with blanket and a hatchet, matches and a flashlight inside.  For the first time in what had seemed like days he smiled.  Maybe I’ll see my village again, he thought. 
He compared the beauty of his home near Bristol Bay to the strange place upon which he’d landed.  Except for the beach, the island was composed of right angles and black cliffs that reached to the sky.  There were no trees, but Jesse saw a line of driftwood further up the haulout.  He stepped out of the boat, intending to gather fuel for a fire, when he was startled by the sight of smoke.  It rose from behind a steep hill to his right and he wondered if a cabin or campsite lay beyond it. 
Across a stretch of surf-flattened rocks he stumbled to the bluff and began to climb.  There was a ridge twenty feet up and he was halfway to it when he noticed something odd.  The smoke continued to rise, but it vanished quickly and didn’t leave a smell.  Not until he reached the summit did he understand.  What he’d thought was evidence of a fire was only steam hovering over a waterfall.  And the queerest aspect of the scene was this: The water was hot. 
It tumbled over a lip of rock and formed a shallow pool several steps down the summit.  In his cupped hands Jesse caught a portion of the falling water and lifted it to his mouth.  It was fresh and tea-flavored—hot, but not scalding.  He lowered himself into the stream and the water crashed over him, soothing his aching muscles and warming the chill in his gut.  Within minutes he was asleep.


Jesse awoke, dizzy with hunger, a share of his strength restored.  He stepped out of the pool and raised his eyes toward the cry of seabirds.  The thought of gull eggs made his mouth water and he looked to the cliff face for a way to the top.  His view went from outcropping to ledge—from crease to crevasse—but in the end he rubbed the stubble on his chin and whispered. 
“I could break a leg up there.”
He turned and picked his way to shore.  At the base of the bluff he found hairy crabs, snails, and seaweed.  He cracked open a sea urchin and sucked out its creamy innards.  Limpets and mussels clung to the rocks and he gorged on them.  As his hunger abated, he began to think of the island as a magical place, like the setting in a child’s fairy tale.  It had saved him—even given him warmth and food.  What other gifts might it provide?
He returned to the boat and dragged two driftwood logs together—enough fuel, he reckoned, to burn through the first few hours of twilight and signal his presence.  Evening came and he could barely keep his eyes open and his legs moving.  At the head of the beach, where the bluff began its straight-up rise, he found a cleft in the rock and dropped to his knees before it.
The opening seemed to lead into a warm and spacious cavern, but the interior was dark and smelled oddly like gunpowder.  He crawled inside, drawing his survival gear behind him.  With no other thought than the need for rest, he peeled off his wet clothes and wrapped himself in a blanket.  Before his head touched rock, he was already dreaming of home. 


The next morning the screeching of gulls startled Jesse awake.  In the dark he put on his clothes and emerged from the cave with the sun overhead.  He shaded his eyes to search the beach and saw a flock of seabirds fighting over a dead tomcod.  Jesse chased the gulls away and salvaged the fish.  He cooked it beside a newly kindled fire, when a mix of surprise and gratitude overwhelmed him. 
Except for a few minor aches and scrapes, he felt like a new man.  What’s more, the fish seemed to have come as another gift, like the fresh water and warm shelter he’d received the previous day.  He was happy to be alive, but his circumstances puzzled him.  Who’s doing this for me? he wondered.  And why?
Jesse ate his fill and gathered more driftwood.  He fed the fire to mark the beach and hoped to maintain the blaze by working and sleeping in shifts.  Satisfied with his progress, he returned to the cave to rest, but as he slipped inside, sounds of his entry echoed and caused him to wonder what was hidden in the darkness.  From his survival bag he fished out the flashlight and pointed it into the gloom. 
What appeared on the far wall made his mouth open in shock.  He saw drawings—dozens of them—like an ocean full of kayaks, whales, and other sea creatures.  He panned slowly across the rock face, thinking: That’s how it used to be—that’s how my people once lived.  He was lost in the glory of it, when the light fell upon a man sitting within a stone alcove.  Jesse screamed and dropped the flashlight.  He held his breath and listened for a response.
“Who are you?” he asked, but there was only silence. 
Jesse’s heart beat like a village drum and he wondered if his head had played tricks on him.  He retrieved the flashlight and trained its beam again.  The man was still there, sitting cross-legged and naked, not far from where Jesse had slept the night before.  His eyes looked empty and his face was deeply wrinkled.  Scattered about him were treasures: a kayak, ropes, spears, floats, and nets. 
“Are these yours?” Jesse asked, but the man remained silent and unmoving.  He didn’t even breathe.

Early the following afternoon a plane circled overhead as if looking for a place to land.  Jesse stood on the haulout and waved, but the plane left and was replaced by a Coast Guard cutter that appeared offshore the next morning.  The ship lowered a motorized inflatable boat that two rescuers piloted to shore. 
Jesse was almost sad to see them come.  He’d enjoyed the company of his wrinkled and unmoving host, a being he’d begun to think of as the god of the island.  At the time of the rescue Jesse was sitting outside the cave with the god and all his possessions spread out around them.  Amazed by the craftsmanship, Jesse studied a bone-tipped spear and committed its design to memory.  He looked up when one of the rescuers, a fellow with red hair and a thin moustache, drew near. 
“Mr. Toyonek?” the man said.
Jesse nodded.
“We’ve been looking for you.  Are you okay?  Any injuries?” 
“I’m good.”
“What do you have there?”  The rescuer knelt and pointed to the god of the island, whose head was resting in Jesse’s lap.
“He saved me.”
“Saved you?”  The man laughed and moved closer.  “It looks to be a mummy.”
Jesse was stunned.  How could the god of the island be a mommy, when he was clearly a man?  Too flustered to correct his rescuer, he asked, “Are you going to take me home now?”
“Sure, but I’m wondering what to do with your friend.”  He turned to his colleague, who arrived carrying a medical bag.  “Take a look at this.”
“I’ll be damned.”  The second man gazed at the items scattered before the cave mouth.  “It’s Aleut, isn’t it?”
“Seems likely, but how old?”
“There’s no metal in any of it.  Even the fishhooks are made of bone.  I’d say it predates the coming of the Russians.  We can’t leave it here, can we?”
“My thoughts, exactly.”
Half an hour later Jesse was on the ship.  The rescuers led him to the galley, where several uniformed people sat at a long table.  They gathered around him, offered him hot coffee and asked how he’d survived the bad weather and days alone.  Jesse tried to answer, but when the ship began to leave, he felt a pang of misgiving. 
“Why are you taking the god of the island?” he asked.  “This is his home.  I know that much.”
The galley quieted.  Jesse looked from one crew member to another and saw confusion on their faces.  A gray-haired man finally spoke.  “Are you talking about what you found?” he asked.  “Because it’s quite a discovery.  Folks at the university will want to study it.”
The man shrugged.  “It’s in our nature, isn’t it?  Don’t we all want to learn about our past?”
The words put new ideas in Jesse’s head.  Maybe, he decided, it wasn’t an accident that he’d landed upon the island.  The more he considered that possibility, the more it seemed right.  But for what purpose had he been saved?  Suddenly he imagined life as it once had been, the same life depicted on the walls of the cave where he’d slept.  It was a simple existence with a clear purpose.  Didn’t the gray-haired man speak the truth, as if the words had been put in his mouth? 
We must learn from our past. 

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