The Death Run
I am one of the proud Nootka people. We live on a broad and deeply indented island where many tall and grand forests of evergreens grow. Far away across the deep wide sea looms a mysterious mainland where only the bravest go. The elders say that there are more Nootka living on that other shore and traders sometimes bring back mysterious things from their villages.
I am named after my father "Stepping on a whale" who was a great hunter in our tribe. The story goes that once he was Whale hunting in his seal skin canoe and speared the great fish with his harpoon at a yard away. Then began the Death Run when Whale makes a final journey to the place it wants to die. Naturally since the harpoon is attached to the boat Whale took the hunters and their canoe with him. The Nootka have long ago learned how to survive the Death Run and a well-provisioned crew with enough food and water can usually survive even through the journey usually lasts three days. Finally, on the third day Whale weakened and Stepping on a Whale prepared to throw a special 'ghost poison' spear to kill him. But Whale would not fall and soon the water was thrashed to foam by his powerful tail. Father could not get a clear shot through the spray so he pulled up the harpoon until the boat was right next to Whale. Though it may have seemed a rash action it was the only way to kill Whale and yet save the canoe.
With a loud cry Father leapt onto the whale and struck it dead, before one great fluke of it's tail threw him far into the sea. He was found washed up on the opposite shore the next day, broken harpoon stalk clutched in his hand. His final hunt earned him the coveted title he passed to me, his skull set among the many fine whalers in our forest shrine.
This name entitled me to the same respect my father demanded. Some of the Whale hunters even believed I may have been in possession of my father's hunting soul and even spoke of the great deeds I would do when I came of age. Because of my privilege I did not do the harder tasks of the village but instead gathered Monkshood plant. I had to do this with sealskin gloves for Monkshood is a deadly poison, made all the more deadly when mixed with the fat from fallen warriors. The Nootka call it "Ghost Poison". Once the shaman told me that it was not the plant that killed but the avenging spirits of those that have fallen to the Whale. When Harpoons were smeared with it, Whale would die even if not struck in a vital place. Sadly, my father hunted with an un-poisoned spear, believing poison to be evil and cowardly.
Although my title afforded me luxury and ease I remember when it nearly cost me my life. Most members of the Nootka village I belonged to were proud of my title and saw nothing wrong with my special treatment. But one brave named Rides the Water always hated and envied me for it, mockingly referring to me as 'tripping on a fish'. I thought nothing of him (for truth to tell my own position of power corrupted my manners) but I could not have dreamed the hardship this neglect would cause me.
It began when Rides the Water was given three stout spears and a massive harpoon smeared with the ghost-poison by the village shaman. After a blessing he then marched up into the woodlands until he vanished from sight. I asked one old brave where he was going.
"He has gone to the shrine of the forest," he replied. "Within he shall receive the power to kill Whale. No mortal man can do this without spirit help." He paused and looked off into the sky.
"Figures carved of wood depicting our gods and heroes," he murmured. "A shrine whose frame is made from the skulls of all whalers, past and present."
"Father is there too?" I whispered.
"Yes, 'Stepping on a whale' resides there as well." He paused for a moment and sighed. "Let us hope that Rides the water will not die that way today."
The next morning Rides the Water approached me and invited me to accompany him in the hunt. I noticed he was being uncharacteristically nice to me, but I had never been on a hunt before so I accepted without thinking.
"It is time you see Whale," Rides the Water said, half to me and half to the village shaman who came to see us off. The whole hunting party was ready at the beach; ten thirty-foot canoes each manned by eight brave warriors who stood nearby. Rides the Water neglected to give me a harpoon. Worse, he made me sit in the back and made me feel like a newborn.
Offshore the oarsmen kept up a brisk stroke until we approached a small circle of floating objects. Rides the Water informed me that these were inflated sealskins, left by a previous whaling party to signal where Whale had last been seen.
"Whale is close." He gripped his spear tightly and signaled for the hunters to prepare their spears.
Then, like a monstrous geyser. Whale broke the water's surface and crashed down again flinging spray into the canoes. A young hunter began to aim the harpoon he had smeared with 'Ghost Poison', but Rides the Water saw him doing this. With an angry yell he knocked the man onto his back.
"No!" Rides the Water snarled, "I throw first!"
When Whale rose again, this time farther away, Rides the Water threw his harpoon over the disappearing tail. I heard a wet smacking noise and I saw the rope pull taut. Whale had been hit.
A cheer went up from the crew and the surrounding canoes who were sure that Rides the Water had struck the fatal blow. But a vague unease was growing on me.
I looked down the length of rope that connected the harpoon to the boat and saw that we were still moving. Had Rides the Water used a poisoned spear himself? Whale would be at least slowing down by now, but he thrashed and sent great curtains of water onto us. No whale struck by a poison spear had ever lasted as long as this one. It did not make sense for Rides the Water not to kill Whale with a poisoned harpoon, only untrained fishermen and great whalers would...
Then a terrible realization occurred to me. The words of the old brave came back to me and I shook with terror. "Let us hope that Rides the Water will not die that way today." He had said. Rides the Water was planning to endure the Death Run.
He had not told anybody about this. If it was true then he had doomed all of us to starvation and death. The hunters that followed my father were experienced men and well prepared for the hunt with provisions and water. The men that were in our boat were half drowned by the whale's thrashings and ill prepared for a three-day journey. What mad reason could he have for his actions?
"What are you doing?" I yelled, waving my hands wildly "kill Whale now! What do you need to prove by this?"
Rides the Water turned slowly to me, glaring hate.
"You do not deserve your name "Stepping on a whale." He stabbed a long, brown finger at me. "My family has had no honor since my father, "Murders the Rival" slew that fool who competed with him for his wife!"
I reached out a hand towards him but he waved me away in anger.
"Your family has been showered with such honor as to name you after a great hunter, I desire honor too and now I have witnesses and the one known as "Stepping on a Whale!"
I must have looked overwhelmed.
"Why else would I bring such a whelp as you with me on a hunt?" he snarled. "It is to prove to all that I deserve your title. You will lose your honor and I will retain it!"
"You don't need to do this," I said, looking at him hard "you have already proved yourself as a great hunter and warrior. If you continue with this madness you will kill half of the men that sail with you."
"What care I?" he turned back towards whale, hands folded.
Then I felt a sharp tug that threw me backwards. As I hit the bottom of the canoe I recalled what that tug meant. The "Death Run" had begun and Rides the Water had doomed his own crew to starvation.
I looked back behind us and saw the other nine hunting vessels waving at us and shouting. Hopeless, I watched them vanish beyond the horizon as Whale pulled us on.
On into the night he carried us, the darkness so complete only the shining sister shone through the clouds. I could still see Rides the Water, hands clasped behind him, un-poisoned spear in his hand. I looked around me at the canoe filled with sleeping braves and worried, was he responsible for this or was I?
The dawn rose slowly like a jellyfish climbing up from the depths. As the beams leaked into my eyes I awoke, and saw in amazement that Rides the Water still stood, spear in hand, eyes on the sea.
"Either today or tomorrow" he continually muttered, "Whale will be mine!"
That night I was awoken by the sound of voices. Faking sleep, I squinted carefully and saw that the conversation was between the members of the crew, talking in low voices and casting furtive glances. I still wasn't sure if I wanted to be awake or "asleep" yet so I pretended to toss a bit in my sleep to get a better view of those talking.
Rides the Water is mad!" I could not tell which one of those huddled had said this "There is not enough food aboard to feed a seagull and yet he plans to brave the Death Run!"
"You do not understand the gods. Quick as Spear" said an old and grizzled man towards the middle of the group. Rides the Water does what he does because the gods have told him to. We should wait."
"But the Death Run has already carried us farther from the shore then my knowledge is." said a soft-spoken man next to the last speaker. "We will be lost if he steps on the whale and is taken by the gods he serves."
"If-f-f only Kn-n-nows the world-d-d was h-h-h-ere," chattered a crewmember, bundled up and shaking from the cold.
"Knows the world?" said the first voice again. "I have never heard of him, is he one of the gods?"
"Not f-f-far from it-t-t." smiled the cold man "He is a nav-navigator and h-h-hunter from the farsh-shore."
I looked far out to sea and thought I saw in the distance a faint flash of firelight.
I must have fallen into the dream world after that because I cannot recall the ending of the conversation. When I did return I could see land before us, forested and running with steams. It reminded me of my home where my mother was probably counting me among the lost. I looked into the dull eyes of the tired and starving hunters and saw the same hopelessness. We would never return to our homeland. One man's pride had destroyed us.
Suddenly a crash rang out and the boat was shaken violently. Whale had found the place he wished to die and was thrashing to be free of the harpoon's rope. Rides the Water jerked the knot that held the rope apart in his fury and called for the other hunters to keep the whale close. Soon the crew had pulled the thrashing whale close. Then I saw Rides the Water crouched on the prow, harpoon in hand, eyes starting from his head.
"I will be counted among the gods!" he bellowed. "I shall survive where Stepping on a whale failed! I shall live where he died! I will not be Stepping on a whale I will be Masters the whale!"
Then he turned to me and smirked.
"Hereafter you will have a new name as well!" He leapt back to his place on the prow. "You shall be Master's Slave, Fools Name and Useless Hunter!"
Just as he prepared to leap, I grappled his legs.
"Stay on board, fool!" I yelled
I must have pushed him just short of the whale. So strong was my charge both of us flipped over into the icy water. Daggers of cold stabbed into me and when I opened my eyes I could see nothing but a formless blue.
When I opened my eyes again every thing was very quiet and colored a deep red. I felt around and pulled the blanket that was lying on top of me. The crew was gathered around me, but no one smiled.
"I survived!" I tried to shout, but for some reason I babbled meaningless words. Everything was dulled by an extreme coldness. The sun was out in full now and pretty soon the numbness wore away. I could move again and I sat up.
"You saved my life." I said.
"Yes," a crewman murmured. "We saved your life. Whale pulled free and swam away."
I noticed that someone was missing.
"Where is Rides the Water?"
The old one shook his head.
"The ocean has claimed him; he would not take the rope."
The soft-spoken man patted me on the back.
I felt a sickly unease. Would he have died had I not pushed him?
"Now that Rides the Water has gone to the deep, we are all lost," sobbed a man to the left of me. "There is no way to sail back to our village without a skillful sailor!"
I looked up and saw the not too distant forested shore.
"Let us make for those shores." I pointed. "I think we can get that far at least."
That night, the last of the smoked meat was shared and the last of the clean water used. The rowers redoubled their efforts to gain the mysterious land; it was the only way we could survive.
The men almost killed themselves at the paddles and by mid-aftemoon we had gained the bay and made land.
We staggered on shore underfed and sea weary. Many men fell onto their knees and thanked the gods to be alive and I was among them. We made camp quickly. I set up my blanket a little distance from the camp because I felt uneasy about sleeping in the open. My fears became true when I was awoken by a war-whoop from the shore.
I hid in the bushes and watched.
On the shore was a war party carrying torches and waving spears. Some even held long glinting branches, fashioned with designs and mounted with a complex device. The other hunters had surrendered without any loss of life.
"Who are you?" a warrior in a fearsome wooden mask barked. "You came by canoe but your weapons are those of fishermen and hunters. Our hunters travel in catamarans, so where do you come from?"
"We come from the whaling village on the far shore" one whimpered. "Who are you?"
"We are of the village just beyond the woods." He pointed with his spear. "You will come with us."
"NEVER!" The old one drew a scaling knife and rushed at the leader. Suddenly one of the branches held by a warrior caught fire at the tip and loud thunder echoed through the forest. The whaler fell prone in fear.
"Get up," the leader commanded. "Skins the seal fired into the trees."
"Skins the seal?" I thought, "That was a Nootka name!"
Suddenly I leapt up.
"Are you not Nootka?" I yelled and the leader started.
"Now we have a boy that speaks our language as well?" the leader scratched his head and in doing pushed his mask off of his face. Suddenly one of the crewmen smiled.
"Knows the world?" he sputtered. "Knows the world here?"
"Cold in Spring how..." began the leader, then the two embraced warmly. Finally the leader held Cold in Spring at arm's length and grinned.
"Men, I now have proof that these are Nootka from the far shore. I am once again in the arms of my brother!"
Then we all marched off through the woods towards the lights of many campfires and sounds of familiar songs. For these were mainland Nootka after-all.
The chief had known my father and offered to give us all transportation back to our village tomorrow by catamaran. I thanked him and kissed his hands with tears in my eyes.
When asked of the fate of Rides the Water we said that he had been killed by Whale. So he got his legend after all, the family Rides the Water has ever after borne the name Glorious Hunter.
We spent the night eating familiar food, joining in the singing of the firelight dancers and discussing the Nootka way of life. We discovered that the blazing branches that make thunder had been bought by the chief for a load of skins from a strange people that lived even farther inland and traveled in winged canoes. There would be many adventures for me to undertake here, and I would return when I came of age.
One day, I too will hunt whale but not for a name. Survives the Run of Death was presented to me by the tribal shaman on my return and I think it a good name to leave for my children.
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Daniel Oles, fiction winner of the high school writing contest for his story “The Death Run,” is an aspiring artist/writer/poet. His story "The Amateur Magician" won an honorable mention in the "National Written and Illustrated by..." contest in 1999. He has also written a full-length comic book called "Last Case." "The Death Run" is based on a National Geographic book, Indians of the Northwest, which describes the Nootka and their whale-hunting techniques. "Stepping on a Whale,” "Cold in Summer," and the forest shrine of whaler's skulls are accurate descriptions of the Nootka people. This is Dan's first work of historical fiction.