Thursday, July 16, 2015

Dark Waters

The month that we call January was a hard time for people who lived in the village they called Kutauwa, in the sand hills, at the edge of the dark forests where the great ocean of the west met the river.
The seas were often high and the winds were often strong, too high and too strong for the cedar boats that the people used to fish and hunt seal and sea-lion. The gray skies hung low and heavy with cold rain and, sometimes, even the skirl of white snow or ice that drove the cold through the seagrass capes and the sealskins into even the toughest of the people.

So January was a time to spend indoors, when you could, in the warmth and the smoky glow of the firepit and the comfortable fug of warm bodies. Let the cold rain beat against the cedar walls and the cold wind raise the white foam on the wavetops and spin the grit off the dune crests. January was a time for mending, for gambling and lying and boasting and telling stories. For lovemaking and quarreling and making up. The night came early and the dark and the cold made good excuses for taking the work and the food and the slaves inside to sit by the fire and tell stories.
That night her brother was telling stories. He was a good storyteller, and he was telling one of her favorite stories, his soft eyes glittering and his long arms dancing before him as he described how the strange, eerie seal had towed the seal hunters to a strange place:
"Now we have gone to a far place. Gone are the breakers; the breakers have disappeared now. It is just calm everywhere; the breakers have disappeared."
She loved how his voice hollowed out as he described the weird calm sea and made the happy shivers run up her back as she thought about the strange seal and the scary ocean far away. She hugged herself in eager anticipation of the rest of the story, happily frightened in the warmth of her sealskin and the cheery firelight.

So it was the emptiness as her brother's voice stuttered to a stop that shocked her more than the first light tremor that shook the roofpole behind her. Somehow the silence was more shocking than the loudest shout. The only sound was the crackling of the fir branch in the fire as she stared into her brother's eyes, now huge, and dark, and frightened.

And then the shaking came.

It seemed to her like she and her house and the whole world were taken up like a salmon in the mouth of su'ln the big brown bear and shaken, as the bear does, to kill. The horrible shaking went on and on and on. She was screaming but couldn't hear her own screams because everyone was screaming. From somewhere behind her she heard a grinding and a splintery crashing and some of the screaming stopped. Some, but only some, because the shaking still went on and on and the screaming went on and on and the horrible sounds of her home and her family dying went on and on.

Until they stopped.

She didn't know how long she was there, terrified and silent and still. It was her brother storyteller who found her, one of his arms twisted and hanging down, and pulled her up with the other, up and out not towards the door, because the door-end of the house was nothing now but a shattered wreckage of cedar planks and poles and bits of mats and baskets, but towards the forest-end where the walls gaped open to the dark. She struggled briefly until he pointed to where the flames from the scattered fire were running up the wall. Together they stumbled out of the opening into the misting rain and the night.

The clouds were thin enough and the moon was bright enough to see the village around them, or what remained of it. The great house of the headman was gone, a heap of shattered wood and worse things spattered around the huge fir that had fallen over it. More than half of the other houses had fallen or were leaning broken, or, worse, beginning to burn. In the wavering light they could see others crawling or staggering shakily from their homes, many still keening or weeping with fear.

It was the convulsive grip of her brother's hand on her arm that made her look up, then follow his face to the west, to the broad arm of the sea where it met the bay. Or where it had when they had gone inside in the sullen dusk. Now the water was gone. Dark sand gleamed wetly under the moon and the rain.

"Now we have gone to a far place." her brother whispered, "Gone are the breakers; the breakers have disappeared now. It is just calm everywhere; the breakers have disappeared."

She stared up into his face.

And then the breakers returned.

The waters rushed in upon them, rising, rising, never stopping, like some mad tide summoned by the gods. She tried to run but the waters were faster and knocked her down. She tried to hold on to her brother but the waters were stronger and ripped his hand from her arm, sank his face from her sight and his last cry from her ears. She closed her eyes and died.

Until the cold, hard bark of the great cedar slammed against the side of her face, shocking her awake and alive again. She gasped and clung to the trunk and then to the branch beside her, as thick as her waist and sturdy as a stone. The waters rose, and she climbed higher, onto another branch almost as large as the first. She lay on the wet moss and put her face into the wet softness, the cold rainwater washing away her hot tears.

She lay still as the dark waters rushed past her filled with soil and trees and the pieces of her life. She lay still as the waters rushed away home, sweeping with them all those things out into the ocean again. She lay still when the waters returned, smaller, weaker, but still higher than a standing man's head. Still full of bits of the dunes and the hills and the forests and more awful things; bits of baskets and furs and animals and people.

She lay still until the light came again, when the sky lightened over the mountains behind her, and showed her the place where she and all her people had been born, and lived, and now was no more.


Ael said...

Beautiful story.

Good thing we know better now and it can't happen to us.

mike said...

I remember the 64 Tsunami. But even that was a piker compared to the 230,000 deaths in the 04 Indian Ocean quake and Tsunami.

Evacuation traffic jams are going to be a problem on the Washington coast. I had a huge Sitka Spruce all picked out. There is a nice nook about 30 feet up. I planned on hidey-holing up there with a bottle of Scotch when the sirens blew. But now am wondering if a big cedar might be better as I note many Spruce up here have a fairly shallow root ball.

Or why fight it? Some are saying huge chunks of the Washingto coast are going to turn out like our past community of Washaway Beach. And that neighborhood did not wash away from a Tsunami - only with normal sized waves.

FDChief said...

What makes me chuckle are all the comments about how this is "scare-mongering" and advising people "not to panic". The geotechnical community in the Northwest has known about this since the late Eighties when Brian Atwater started looking at paleotsunami sand layers in Grays Harbor and Curt Peterson started doing the same here in Oregon. Every so often someone reminds the Public about this and after a flurry of tut-tutting and head-shaking everyone goes back to Dancing With The Stars.

There's a wonderful little book called The Orphan Tsunami of 1700 that documents the researchers who did the geologic and archaeologic sleuthing that tracked down this event to the actual time it occurred; 9pm, January 27, 1700. It's available online here:

That the native peoples of the Northwest Coast were devastated is testified in the anecdotal record. Here's one story recorded by a white man named James Swan in 1864:

"Billy (his native speaker) also related an interesting tradition He says that “ankarty” but not “hias ankarty” that is, at not a very remote period the water flowed from Neeah bay through the Waatch prairie, and Cape Flattery was an Island. That the water receded and left Neeah Bay dry for four days
and became very warm. It then rose again without any swell or waves and submerged the whole of the cape and in fact the whole country except the mountains back of
Clyoquote. As the water rose those who had canoes put their effects into them and floated off with the current which set strong to the north. Some drifted one way and some another and when the waters again resumed their accustomed level a portion of the tribe found themselves beyond Nootka where their descendants now reside and are known by the same name as the Makahs—or Quinaitchechat. Many canoes came down in the trees and were destroyed, and numerous lives were lost. The same thing happened at Quillehuyte and a portion of that tribe went off either in canoes or by land and formed the Chimakum tribe>"

Anyway, glad you enjoyed the story.

FDChief said...

The photo at the bottom, by the way is one of the "ghost forests" of the Northwest coast (in this case in Willapa Bay on the SW Washington coast.

What happens between these events is that the upper (North American) plate "flexes" as it is shoved west against the subducting Juan de Fuca plate. This flexion is expressed as a slow rise in elevation over time, so tide flats become beaches become forests.

Then the plates move, the big EQ and tsunami hammer the coast, and as part of that the upper plate "relaxes", stretches out laterally and drops down vertically; forests become tide flats (or bays) again and the seawater kills the cedars.

Again, these "ghost forests" were found all along the Coast - in Oregon the most famous is at Neskowin Beach in central Tillamook county ( that has been dated to an event the occurred roughly 2,000 year before present. So we knew that this was happening but were happy to ignore it for decades and, even now, are unwilling to spend the money and political capital it'd take to truly harden western Oregon against this event...

Brian said...

I don't think there is any way to truly harden the West Coast against a repeat of the 1700 earthquake and tsunami; that story that appeared recently in the new York Times magazine was kind of extreme, but it would still devastate the coast.
I live on Vancouver Island and I expect that there will be very little left to sustain us on this island after such an event: we don't grow any or our own food, we don't even generate our own power (it all comes across from the mainland in cables), all the docks will be smashed and the roads broken, we'll be on our own for months if not years.

So perhaps we ought to do what we can against an event lesser in magnitude but greater in probability.

Fine story though!


Lisa said...

Terrifying! "Now we have gone to a far place."

I always enjoy your natural history shorts. (Funny, the roof peaking out from ground reminds me of a small Eastern shore cottage I once saw in a magazine, roof buried almost in the dune on one side -- just enough room for a bed, a table and lamp, and a small kitchen prep area. I thought it very cozy, and a fine place for a writing retreat. Really, just a place to be sane and isolated, ensconced within and yet protected from nature.)

That was my dream at age 14.