NOTE: The assignment for this was actually to write historical fiction, based on an article out of Raincoast Chronicles First Five. Because I like to be difficult, I did prehistorical fiction, set in the Haida mythworld. No prior knowledge of Haida myth needed to follow this, though.
For those who have read "Scratched on the Side" and any amount of "Between Vermin," this is the GENESIS of the entities that will eventually become Anth/Ellis and Goh/Hugo. It's the old soulmate cliche that they were once the same person, yes. Except if I EVER get around to finishing BV it's going to take a different angle on said cliche. Really. I swear. Crap. Anyway, the Rock Woman kinda gets the short end of the stick, reincarnation-wise -- whatever happens at House Point, it obviously doesn't go well, and the next time we see her she's half of a pair of scissors in "Scratched on the Side." In BV she's Ellis's pocket knife.
Six Pins and the Shaman's Mix
Tonight I tuck a wooden vial and six stripped raven feathers in a pouch at my hip and visit the One-Sided Man in his shack at the edge of the village. His wailing has been louder and longer the past few nights – his shrieks and low hollow hooms like bear grunts – and I start to think it's somehow for my benefit, that he calls me, summons someone who is also one-sided, who is split in half like he is.
My own house: by this hour a blackened box over a grey dirt floor, the house-pit a darker rectangle in the centre. Five families' living areas, divided by wooden screens, line the walls. My family sleeps along the left side, toward the back; I huddle in self-imposed exile a short distance down the wall from them. Tonight I wait until the woodbug lumps of their bodies all breathe in sleep-rhythm before making my escape. I haul the heavy half of me off the ground and try to move quietly for once in my life. Stealth is difficult when the left half of one's body is made of rock – the joints scrape and clatter when they bend, and with each step my stone foot hits the dirt with a booming thump. Everything is difficult like this.
But the house sleeps on through my knocking, clicking bid for the exit, and I make it under the blanket hung over the door and out into the night. Above me thin clouds smear the moon; the grass strip between the houses and the beach streaks silver and dark like otter pelt. The houses stand in a line curved to match the shore's shape, their wood flaked and whitened by the ocean air.
I limp down the grass strip, past the last home in the line and to a shack nestled up against the edge of the forest. Gaps like missing teeth glare between the hut's splintering boards. I stop before the solid black rectangle of the doorway and try to peer through, to pick out the One-Sided Man's sitting or sleeping spot.
"Clattering outside my home," his voice slurs from inside. "Don't you think it's hard enough for me to sleep without your noise?"
I touch my good hand to the doorframe and slip inside, my rock foot drawing its groove in the dirt behind me. The front of my flesh half buzzes as if expecting to hit a wall or cold surface of water. I wait for my eyes to adjust in what I assume is the centre of the shack and look to the right corner, where One-Side's voice had come from.
The man is everything my aunts whispered in tight circles, heads bowed and eyes twitching toward the bay where they say he faced off with a god. In the corner of the shack, overlaid with strips of moonlight diving in between the slats, slouches half the man who was once the pride of his father, the chief. His right half has been sheared cleanly off: a wound the length and thickness of his body makes a reddened silhouette where (they say) an orca god's dorsal fin sliced straight down his centre.
"I'm sorry if I woke you." I tilt my head and the stones in my neck scrape together. "They wouldn't have let me see you during the day." The village would like to forget he is here at all.
One-Side lies on his unscathed side with his shoulder braced against the wall, torso sagging, aiming to match the right angle of the wall and floor. The cut through his centre exposes his organs like halved fruit; his skull makes a grey eggshell around the worm-twists of his brain. The maroon of his muscles, all cordoned off by whitish bone and fat, seem to have dried to the consistency of jerky. Their dried surfaces pucker around the level of the navel, where his torso crooks.
"Leave me be, Clatter-Woman." His words mush past his half-lips.
"I thought you might want company." I pivot on my stone foot; it grinds into the dirt. "I know what it's like, being in-half."
His one eye rolls toward me and he stretches his mouth open until his jaw cracks. "I'm poor company. Leave."
"Why do you wail all night if you don't want someone to answer?"
"The song wasn't for you." He keeps his eye fixed on me. "It's for my other half."
I knew him when he was Two-Sided: the chief's youngest son, and the terror of our village. At eleven years he was shorter than the other boys, and stringy, but moved like a squirrel, darted around and between them until they just about broke their necks trying to keep their eyes on him.
I'd been excused from clothes-mending for the rest of the afternoon – Mother was sick of me accidentally pinning my sister's projects under my rock leg and tearing them when I tried to hand them back. I clattered away from the house, left their muttering behind me. Mother would approach me later and ask me to leave the sewing to my sisters. It was not my forte anyway – even my good hand was clumsy. Carrying this rock half with me had bloated my muscles, made me into a house of a thirteen-year-old (and every year the rock's growth matched the flesh's, later imitating breasts and hips in clumsy mockery), but done nothing for my delicacy. So I would not mend clothes. Just like I would not canoe (too heavy, too stiff to hold a paddle) or play on the beach (once their parent's backs were turned the boys would drag me to the water's edge yelling, "Anchor! Anchor!").
I wandered to the edge of the summer-yellowed grass, sat on the ledge where the soil scooped and gave way to the beach, and watched the younger children tear across the pebbles down by the water. The Two-Sided Boy stood at the center of a loose, orbiting ring of boys and girls. He gripped a length of bull kelp just above the bulb and slapped the long end across the others' shoulders and legs when they came close. One roly-poly little girl made a grab for the kelp's bulb and he brought its brownish tail down over her forearm with a wet clap. She gripped her arm and stumbled backward, then scrambled up the beach toward the houses, tears upping the shine on her already slick skin. The remaining children chirped at Two-Side to stop, but he just stretched his mouth open as far as it would go and bellowed his crow-caw laugh.
The roly-poly girl returned with Two-Side's big-bellied uncle. He bumbled down to the boy and grabbed his wrist, but the boy passed the kelp to his free hand and whipped at his uncle's knees. I chewed on the tips of my fingers to keep from giggling. The weed wrapped around the man's calf; Two-Side yanked, his uncle swayed and released the boy's wrist to wheel his arms for balance. The boy ran.
He clambered up onto the grass, barrelled toward me and pattered past, his feet beating a woodpecker rhythm on the earth. He'd barely passed me when a blue-black flurry dove at his head. Two-Side yelped, reeled away from the swooping raven and landed on his backside.
The bird drew a wide loop over the tops of nearby houses, then gravitated back to the boy and perched between his outstretched legs. From my spot I only saw the boy's face in profile, everything but his lips and tiny round nose hidden by matted black hair. The lips hung open as he and the raven seemed to stare each other down.
"Raven?" said the boy.
The bird shuffled back, lifted its wings and shook them as if preparing to fly, then settled.
"Are you the Raven? The one they tell stories about?" The corners of boy's mouth pulled back, cut folds beneath his baby-fat cheeks. "Wow. Maybe you are. It's nice to meet you, Mr. Raven. I don't suppose you'd want to fly me out of here? You could take me to see the god-world."
The bird screeched at him, then took to the sky as Two-Side's uncle stalked up, wrapped a blocky hand around the boy's upper arm and hauled him to his feet. The Two-Sided Boy stumbled off toward the houses with his eyes fixed on the raven's retreating form, scribbled wing-arches that drifted away over the treetops.
I defy the One-Sided Man's commands to leave him and sit by his foot, beyond the fan of cleared dirt his leg has swept on the ground.
"Where is your other half?" I ask.
"House Point, probably." The god-village to the North. "Or somewhere in the Strait, leaping around with the gods in their orca skins. I'll bet they gave him an orca skin of his own. I'll bet they didn't put him in a shack to forget about him." He tilts his face up and shouts the last part for our village's benefit.
The chief won't even let us talk about him, though most of us do anyway. We're supposed to pretend he's dead, like they thought he was when they found him washed up on the beach last winter. His mother knelt over his half-body and shrieked until his hand clamped onto her forearm hard enough to bruise, and he told her to shut up. With half his body shorn off, without even any blood in him he moved and he talked. But he wailed and writhed on the beach pebbles and called his mother a whore, and when anyone brought him blankets or medicine he kicked them and blared that it wasn't what he wanted.
The nose on the man beside me is still round like the Two-Sided Boy's was, though not tiny anymore, and not whole; when his mouth pulls back to grimace it still cuts a deep fold under his low-boned cheek. But the man beside me is not the boy who asked the raven to fly him away.
He is not the boy whose roaming woke me up one night, a month after I'd stopped sleeping beside my brother and sisters. At twenty years I had still not started to bleed. My younger sister had married and her belly now thrust huge and round from her small frame. A potlatch for the marriage, one for the birth, any number for the growing child. I could contribute nothing to this family without the ability to bear. Mother didn't need to approach me this time: I chose a spot between our family's quarters and the back wall, and slept away from them.
The chief's family slept in the same house as us, along the back wall behind a trio of wooden screens which, from my new sleeping spot, I could see behind. The Two-Sided Boy, by then a stocky seventeen-year-old, crept along the wall, alternating his hands on the wood and glancing down every few steps to make sure he didn't step on anyone. He inspected the wall with eyes slitted and jaw thrust forward. When he neared my corner I sat up; my stones' clacking caught his attention and he looked over, his eyes grey-white moons in the night of his face.
He whispered, "I'm looking for a door."
"Then you're at the wrong end." I pointed toward the front of the house with my flesh hand. Maybe he was still half-asleep.
"No." He left the wall and knelt in front of me. His teeth made a third moon, a yellow half-full one reposing at the bottom of his face. "I heard that there are sometimes doors to the god-world on the back walls of houses. I was wondering if ours was like that."
I bowed my head. "I don't think so. We would have known about it already."
"Maybe." He returned to the wall and continued his hand-over-hand progress. Thin blue pre-dawn started to slink under the blanket hung over the doorway and lighten the black box of our house. I lay back down. My chest rumbled for Two-Side like a hungry stomach.
One-Side's leg twitches; his body slumps farther down with a crackling sound as his weight shifts against the decaying wood. His foot nudges my rock arm, and my good half tenses.
This place begins to unnerve me. I notice for the first time the near-absence of scent. The man has been in here for an entire season; the shack should be rank with sweat and waste. All I smell is damp earth and wood-rot. Then again I've never heard of anyone bringing food or water out here for him. I suppose if losing half his body won't kill him, neither will starvation. I may be in-half, but at least my heart still hammers, my throat still takes food.
"Don't you get hungry?" I ask him.
"Yes!" He shouts it, and I jump again. "I crave food, I crave drink and sex. I want them more than I ever did when I was whole. Isn't that funny?" He caws, the same scraping laugh as that boy holding his length of bull kelp. "All the fleeting whims you've ever had, the urge to break an uncle's neck, to eat the whole fish raw while mother's back is turned, to devour everything and everyone: imagine a mind full of that, all day that and nothing else. They're sparking flames that used to fizzle if they got too far down the vein, but now they reach a certain point, this open wound on my side, and just burn along the surface. The half that used to dampen them: he left with the gods."
As he rants his body stiffens, straightens his sagging torso. The following silence sinks his trunk back toward the ground. The moonlight between the slats has lost its edge, and now fills the shack with a pale even glow.
My aunts tell a story about the day I was born. They say I slid out of my mother soft on both sides, like any other baby, but that the flesh on my left side was a pale, slick grey, like seal skin. They brought in the shaman to say which one of my ancestor's souls had been born in me. He said I was my grandmother's mother: she had rejected one of the House Point gods, who had flown to our village in a goose skin to court her. When the grey half of me hardened over the next week they said curse, they said punishment. It is punishment for refusing a god.
Later, at twenty years, when I decided I would never bleed or bear and started sleeping away from my family, my sister suggested I train to be a shaman. Most women have to wait until age makes them barren – monthly blood pollutes them, they say, makes them unlucky and unfit for magic – but I had no obstacle, and few other options. So I went to live with the shaman, a thin old man with goose-flat feet, a face dominated by the enormous grooved expanse of skin between his nose and upper lip, and an idea that I'd learn best if made to cook all his meals and beaten about the head with an empty boot.
After a year of training we came to the magic that required dances. The shaman watched my rock half hobble-clack alongside my good leg, and told me to go home.
"Why did you come here, Clatter-Woman?" One-Side asks.
"I thought you might want me here. Someone who knows what it's like, being one-sided." I raise my flesh hand and grab my rock shoulder to illustrate. Moss squishes under my fingers.
"Of all the things I want," his top lip peels back, "a slow, heavy, noisy woman isn't one of them."
"But you would want another half." I point to him, and then to myself. "It's something I can do – put us together. A trick I learned from the shaman." I hold my good hand out toward him, offering for inspection. Is it good enough?
His eye drops to the bottom lid, veined white arcing over iris and pupil. He inspects my hand and for a moment doesn't speak. He moves up my arm to my face, its thin lips and squint-eyes, its dead grey half with scooped eye and lichen for hair. His jaw slides sideways and his lips pooch as he bites the inside of his cheek – the look of a man appraising a fresh-carved spear.
Then, in a far-away voice, "How kind. You'd prefer me to a side of stone."
"I do this for you," my cheek puffs. "With my half you can at least eat and drink again. And you can go look for the gods, and your own other half. We can go north to House Point, you can take him back—"
"And when that leaves you one-sided again?"
"—I'll find the god that courted my grandmother's mother and beg him to forgive me, and take me, and give me a god skin to live in so for once it won't matter how much of this body I have." By the end my words overtake each other, landslide out of me. I put my head between my legs and breathe on the verge of dry-heave. I didn't expect to say any of that. I didn't think god-courting was any part of my plan – I never meant to aim that high. The half-man beside me is supposed to be all I want.
The man chuckles, not his caw-laugh now but a gurgling thing, like a urine stream pattering on dirt. "Stupid woman. You're still chasing the gods? Look how whole that left me. Look how it ended when I listened to that snivelling, god-loving side of me."
My breathing slows. One-Side keeps talking, but no longer at me; his words pour from his mouth and down the wall-slats. He's mumbling about gods and orca fins and after a long string of growled mush his rant solidifies into a story. He winds through an account of the night his right half split.
Last winter the House Point gods had put on their orca skins and gone out to play in the strait. On their way South past our village, one young god broke off from the pod and circled in the bay, pitching his whalesong at our houses. He haunted the bay for two days; the shaman said it was bad luck to look at this god, so we stayed inside our houses, went about our winter feasts and stories and sleep, and when we did step outside we watched our feet, or we looked up the long slope of the mountain behind our village.
On the second night the orca god's song found its way under the door-blanket of our house, around the chief's family's screens and into the Two-Sided Man's right ear. Clicks and squealing, low-throated gurgles called him out to the shore, across the slick beach pebbles and into a canoe. He pushed off, tucked his legs inside the craft and paddled out across the glossy black water. The god's two dorsal fins, side by side on the hump of its back, drew a wide loop in the middle of the bay.
Two-Side stopped at the near edge of the god's circuit. The orca surfaced beside the canoe and opened its mouth; steam roiled out and billowed up toward the night sky.
Its lips, numb and immobile over half-rings of small triangular teeth, couldn't wrap around its words, but the pink uncooked meat of its tongue waved as its voice came from deep in its throat.
"I am looking for one of you willing to come back to House Point with me," said the God. "I have a taste for your kind. You are sparked and eager, so ready to propel yourselves. The other gods are bored with themselves; they are sluggish."
"I'll go," said the Two-Sided Man automatically. He knelt, and his right hand reached out for the god's blunt white-and-black nose. The canoe's front end dipped low in the water. His hand brushed against the god, the pregnant-belly tautness of its skin, then jerked back, clutched his hand to his chest, and fell back in the canoe. The orca closed its mouth and turned so one tiny fishegg eye questioned the Two-Sided Man.
"I'm sorry," said Two-Side. "Half of me wants to stay here."
The god's head sank back into the water. Its double dorsal fin followed, and Two-Side felt the canoe heave as the orca swam underneath. The fins resurfaced, drew a long arc out to near the mouth of the bay. Two-Side grabbed his paddle and turned the canoe to follow it, but the fins hooked back toward him and sped up. They came at the canoe, cut the bay's surface and let the wound fall closed behind in a white gush of wake. One part of the man tried to scramble to the back of the canoe; another part tried to reach out and grasp the approaching fins. Their efforts together left him frozen, hands latched to the craft's wooden lip.
One of the god's fins split the canoe's front, then drove straight through Two-Side's centre. His sides pulled away from each other and flopped over the canoe's lip. One-Side tumbled into the bay; frigid water soaked his head and he splashed out of consciousness.
"So do it," says the One-Sided Man.
I lift my head and peer at him over my rock knee.
"Pull your shaman trick." He speaks through his teeth, glares at the rotwood wall. "Stick us together. I won't stay in this disgusting hut any longer than I have to. If you can take me to my other half, do it."
I sit up, and find my flesh-half jittering.
"Can you straighten up?" I ask.
He does, with grunts and leg-kicking and the scrabbling of his fingers on dirt and wood, until he sits braced against the side and back walls, almost perfectly upright. I scoot up beside him. I tuck my rock leg to my chest and grasp its knee with my rock hand, slide the vial out of the pouch at my hip, pull the bark stopper out with my teeth and pour its contents (one of the shaman's concoctions, mostly seawater and crushed heron bones) over the stone. My good arm and leg shuffle my dead half sideways until it presses against the One-Sided Man's wound.
I push into him.
He belches as the rock squeezes his stomach and forces air up his throat, but doesn't call out. The stone presses between his muscles, behind the dry red blob of his heart. I push until my whole side is buried in him. His body absorbs the rock, instead of expanding around it, and remains the same size and shape as before – the shaman's mix at work. I pick three of the stripped raven feathers from their pouch and poke them in through his skin (he hisses) and up through mine, pin a seam down our front, feathers at the forehead and chest and belly. I clumsily repeat the same down our back with the last three.
For a moment: nothing. A cone drops onto the shack's roof with a bang and skittering roll. My left side still feels numb. Then something tugs my mouth open, and says with a voice like a chorus of mine and the One-Sided Man's, "It's finished?"
Yes, I try to say, but whatever moved my mouth holds it closed now.
But he hears anyway, "Good. We'll leave here before dawn."
The One-Sided Man moves both our halves. He pulls my arm and his behind us and struggles to our feet, hobbles to the door on legs of different lengths, bangs into the doorframe and smacks the wood with my hand. He pulls and propels us out the door.
Let me see my family first. I want to say goodbye; I want to show them this. Their hopeless Rock-Daughter: whole, for once.
"They will find some reason to stop us. No." We stagger down the grass strip, march to the houses in our rolling idiot up-down gait.
Pink-orange dawn slaps itself onto the mountain behind our village, stains the white-grey rocks above the treeline. The trees themselves blanket like moss all the way down to shoulder up against the backs of our houses. Farther down, past the roofs and totems and grass, the One-Sided Man and I stand at the water's edge.
I have made a mistake.
The seam down our centre crawls; it itches and pinches when One-Side moves us. Behind the feather-pinned skin two raw wounds are pressed together and they burn. His half on mine is sea water on a cut – no, the throb is spreading sideways across my ribs, into my arms and legs: poison on a cut. Rotten food that's escaped the stomach and now sears the inside of my skin. My body protests too late that this, the two of us pinned up, was never the solution.
But One-Side will never let us get back now. When I try to pull his trick of spreading myself through both sides of the body (and each time he pushes me back before I can move us) all I feel down his half is a tugging northward. My need for him was never as strong as his is for his other half. Maybe at least I will find some end with the gods at House Point.
We grip the smoothed wood of my father's canoe and push it across the pebbles with a sound like releasing breath. It wobbles side-to-side in the water and nearly turns over when we clamber in. The paddle peels back the bay's surface.