*A retelling of a Coastal Salish tale
Written by Kerry E.B. Black
Everyone wondered why Little Annie married a dead man, but her tribe attended the ceremony and waved good bye to the girl none-the-less. Her brother Harry gave her a blanket woven with hummingbirds as a gift. “It might be cold where you’re going.”
After he kissed her goodbye, Harry’s stomach churned with worry. Every hummingbird reminded him of his Little Annie, a girl known for her quick efficiency and industrious ways.
“I’m going to visit her,” he told the winds. He walked toward the splendor of the setting sun until he reached the vast river between the land of light and the land of darkness. The waters lapped the rocks beneath his feet as stars peeped from overhead.
He cupped his hands and whistled. “Little Annie, it’s your brother. Please, I want to visit you.”
An owl hooted from a tree nearby, and unseen creatures scampered through the underbrush. Gentle winds brushed his hair from his face, and weariness weighted his limbs. As he waited, he wearied, and he yawned.
A dark-stained boat washed ashore. Despite a hole in the hull, it stayed afloat. In the bow, a pile of bones glowed ghostly white in the moon’s rays. “Ugh!” He kicked them into the water and prayed the boat would not sink as he paddled to the distant shore.
Little Annie waited with crossed arms and thumping foot. Her braids glistened like waterfalls over her shoulders. While she steadied him, she tutted. “So, Harry, why’d you try to drown my husband?”
Harry stiffened in her embrace. “I didn’t.”
Stars reflected in her dark eyes. “Things appear differently here when you don’t belong.” She thrust out her chin and led the way through a decrepit village to a shack. “This is my home. Welcome.” Hinges creaked as she pushed through the door. Dust and cobwebs rained into their hair. She pointed to a broken chair. “Sit. I’ll get a treat.”
His mouth fell open at the sight before his eyes. His beautiful sister lived in a hovel. He shuddered as he pushed a dog’s bones from the chair. They cracked as they hit the dirty floor, raising a cloud.
She rushed into the room and knelt to gather the bones to her chest. “Harry, you must be careful. You hurt my pet.”
Harry chewed his lip. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”
She stood and dusted her hands on her skirt. “I know you don’t. My dear, you don’t belong here.” She pulled him into an embrace. Her hair smelled of almond, and her tears cooled on his cheek. With a shaking hand she dried her eyes. She handed Harry a basket. “Don’t open this until you reach the land of the living. Do you understand?”
He shook his head.
“I miss you.”
“I love you. Tell all our relations I wish them the best. But Harry, please don’t forget. Do not open the basket.”
The boat swayed like a cradle as it conveyed Harry across the dark waterway. The rising sun stained the sky with springtime pinks and yellows. Harry’s stomach grumbled, and he licked his lips. Ripe fruits perfumed the air, and Harry peeked inside the basket, anticipating his sister’s treat.
A swarm of bees rushed the opening. Stings assaulted, burning as though he fell into a lodge fire. He leapt to his feet, swatting without effect as the buzzing reached a crescendo. He stumbled as the boat lurched, and he fell into frigid waters. His throat constricted with swelling, and no air entered his lungs. His skin felt lumpy and scorched, and darkness pulled him deeper into the water.
A man’s muscled arm grasped Harry and pulled him into a golden canoe. Harry sputtered, but his skin no longer burned.
“Brother,” the man in the boat said. “You did not listen to your sister. Now you must come home with me.”
Harry marveled at the beading on the man’s clothing.
The man smiled. “Your sister is very talented.” He led Harry through a well-appointed town to a cheerful lodge. Bright paintings graced the walls, and thick rugs covered spotless floors. A fire crackled, and home cooking wafted through the air.
A dog barked a greeting from a carved wood chair, and Little Annie shook her head, sending earrings clinking. Her voice sounded heavy, and tears glistened over her cheeks. “You opened the basket before you reached the land of the living.” She sighed and opened her arms, welcoming him into an embrace. “At least now you can see our home as it truly is now that you’re a part of this land.”
“You mean, I’m dead?”
The man who paddled the canoe kissed Annie atop her head and wrapped a protective arm around her shoulders.
Harry gulped. “You’re my sister’s husband?”
The man laughed. “Yes. And this is our home. Looks different when you’re a part of the non-living tribe, doesn’t it?”
Harry took in the opulent surroundings and nodded, acclimating to his new existence.