A literary novel by Eugene Marckx (175,000 words)
In August 1952, twelve-year-old Benny Murdock is anxious about his father, a soldier missing for over a year in the Korean War. He goes with his mother to her parents’ farm on Willapa Bay. His second night there, longing for his father, he glimpses a gimpy-legged old Indian in the dark outside the window. Grandpa chases that “no-good siwash,” Broken Charlie, with a shotgun. Next day Benny’s mother drives away without him.
Charlie, on the run, works for Ole Rolvaag, who worries about a clear-cut slope above his farm. Asleep in the woods, Charlie dreams of “Salmon People” in the ocean who are in grief and seek his help. His own heartache turns angry at the sound of diesel engines in a clear-cutting. When a box of dynamite is left out he blows up much of the equipment. Dan McCauley, the logging contractor, trapped in his pickup by a pile of branches, hears Charlie taunting above on the cab and shoots his shotgun through the roof. Charlie, with only two dynamite sticks left, sees his anger has brought down failure on himself, and he dreams of his own death.
Benny learns to milk Grandpa’s cow, Clementine, and fights a neighbor bully to hold his own at school. Then he feels Clementine’s flank moving¾her calf, due in November. High in a lone spruce overlooking the cow pasture and the bay, he yearns for his father just as Charlie goes by below him and slips into the woods. That evening Benny meets Nick LaPush, a young Chinook Indian gillnet fisherman, bringing a gift salmon from the Columbia River. Nick’s left hand is maimed from a war wound, and Benny sees how dead he looks. What kind of war sends men home walking around dead?
Nick brings another fish to his old girlfriend, Fay Nielsen. She would like him to go to college. She’ll be going, but he balks. Day-to-day is all he can manage right now.
Charlie, afraid to go to his shack on Ellsworth Creek, hides out and takes a job on Long Island in the bay watching some clam beds against poachers. There he broods on his past, his mother dying after his sister’s birth, and then his father lost in an avalanche, and as a boy, near starvation, giving up his little sister to a farm family.
Back then, George LaPush, a Chinook friend, helped Charlie find work. But town life sent the young man into the hills again, where he fasted for a vision. Bear tamanawis danced with Charlie, yet what good was that? Bears were starving, trapped and shot in the hills. So he ended up working as a logger and drinking hard, because he hated himself in this white man’s job. But after he shot an attacking bear a high lead cable snapped, broke his leg and nearly killed him.
Recovering with the Yakamas, he learned their sweat lodge tradition. Then close to death in a blizzard he fell into a bear den and had a “bear dream,” a way to kill them with respect. He worked for Maisie, a motherly rancher who gave him a necklace of power, but her lonely married friend slept with him, and he had to flee from the woman’s husband. Traveling in a boxcar he was attacked by a man with a long knife. Charlie turned him out of the speeding train, and kept the knife.
Back on the bay, he became a guide to hunters, but his spirit power would not let him use a gun. His power lay in a respectful killing of wounded, dangerous bears with a pole and his long knife.
Now he loses his watchman’s job on Long Island. The boss, giving him a bottle of whiskey, says he’ll drop him off anywhere on the bay. “But there?”
Benny sees smoke that night rising from the old station house on pilings in the bay. He rows out alone, and Charlie, drunk, scares him off, but later, when men and dogs are off hunting a cougar, he comes to show Benny the old tracks. “That cougar’s long gone.”
Clementine breaks her leg, and Grandpa has to put her down. The sight of her stillborn calf butchered and then her own carcass hanging in the barn haunts Benny. At dusk he hears a cougar and runs yelling into the wet pasture. He trips on Clemetine’s head buried in mud.
Nick LaPush has no feelings around his mother’s death. Instead he has splitting headaches and flashbacks from the war. He carries a pistol, even in bed, and in nightmares he is liable to fire it. These dangerous breaks drive him toward suicide, but Charlie leads him into a sweat lodge where he takes up traditional chants and prayers. After this he throws his pistol into deep water. Again and again, haunted by the war, he climbs up to Charlie’s shack on Ellsworth Creek to sweat. “Those dead don’t want you dead,” Charlie tells him.
Dan McCauley, getting into another drunken fight, this time wakes up in jail. His logging business is sinking in debt for lack of profit on the trees he has contracted to cut.
Without a cow, Benny and his grandparents face a hard winter, but neighbors sell them Jessie Bell, a pregnant heifer. At the table one night he is astonished to hear that Grandma is Charlie’s sister. Then they get news that Benny’s mother’s plane has gone down in the Sea of Japan. Grandpa drives to Fort Lewis to settle her affairs, and Jessie Bell gives birth in a snowstorm. Benny finds her and hauls the bull-calf out of the woods to the barn.
George LaPush is getting weaker. Charlie, guided by dreams, believes that a bearskin taken in a ritual hunt will give his friend healing strength. In that snowstorm, with an ax, a pole and a knife he wakes a bear from its den, but it swats away the ax and comes down to kill him. By luck the long knife Charlie has pierces the bear’s heart. Nick and others pack out and give away all of the meat. Along with Maisie’s necklace Charlie gives the tanned skin to George, who thanks him. “It’ll comfort me on my journey west.” George turns to doze off, and the necklace snaps from his neck, scattering.
Daunted, Charlie wonders where his own dreams are sending him. Snow melts in a heavy rainstorm stripping what’s left on the slopes. A sudden landslide diverts a river course and destroys Ole Rolvaag’s farm, and Ole drowns trying to save his cows. Charlie and Nick go in the sweat lodge to grapple with their losses. Nick finally breaks down sobbing for his father, his mother and his dead buddies, and then begins dancing out his grief. Charlie finds hope in this deep shift and dances too.
Meanwhile, Benny hears that Grandpa is going to sell the calf. The boy, wanting to save the animal, rows with it in a skiff across the bay, into the hills, and he almost dies of exposure. Charlie finds him, wards off a hungry bear, revives and warms Benny, and helps him get to his shack, the calf following along. Nick and Benny get reacquainted.
Hearing the story of “Basket Woman,” where a man lost his relation to nature, the basket woman, Benny says, before he goes home he wants to know what Charlie knows—tamanawis. Charlie warns him but finally consents to send him out. They all pray in the sweat lodge, and the boy goes out to fast. In his vision, unsettling, “Bloody Man” dances around him. On his return they all celebrate. Near dawn a cougar attacks the calf, but Benny charges the cat and is mauled. Close to death in the hospital he enters a Rainbow World with a woman holding him¾and letting him go. He can’t bear the loss of that world. When he awakens his grandparents tell him that his father is alive and coming home from Korea.
One night Nick hears his dad, half-asleep, mumbling an old Chinook tale he used to tell, of Young Chinook. Now he is caught by a sense that his father is telling it to his dead relatives who fill the room. Nick drops into his own dark dream from last night, weeping for a Korean boy he’d killed.
On a Sunday Dan McCauley, shotgun in hand, tracks along a trail up to the shack on Ellsworth Creek. Just then Charlie pulls out of his wood box two old sticks of dynamite left from last year. “How did these get in here?” In a rush to take them out he bumps into Dan at the door. Dan shoots, and together they explode. Nick hears the blast.
Later that day Benny leads his father to Charlie’s and is stunned at the obliterated shack. Back home he runs off to the woods, but Nick finds him. “Charlie’s gone, and the hurt won’t quit. But one way I know to be near him¾in the sweat lodge.”
Yet Benny’s grief takes him beyond the sweat lodge out to the hillside of his vision. In a passing shower he glimpses the intense colors of the Rainbow World and finds comfort for his heartache that this is still something he can see. Then he hears diesel engines on a distant clear-cut and begins to dance hard in “Bloody-Man” anger. At that moment his father finds him, and the old soldier looks into his son’s fiery eyes. “You’d best make plans that won’t scorch everything you love.”