I Heard the Owl Call My Name

I Heard the Owl Call My Name, by Margaret Craven, begins with a diagnosis.

painting by Emily Carr

The doctor said to the Bishop, “So you see, my lord, your young ordinand can live no more than three years and doesn’t know it. Will you tell him, and what will you do with him?” The Bishop said to the doctor, “Yes, I’ll tell him, but not yet. If I tell him now, he’ll try too hard. How much time has he for an active life?” “A little less than two years if he’s lucky.” “So short a time to learn so much? It leaves me no choice. I shall send him to my hardest parish. I shall send him to Kingcome on patrol of the Indian villages.” “Then I hope you’ll pray for him, my lord.” But the Bishop only answered gently that it was where he would wish to go if he were young again, and in the ordinand’s place.

So the young vicar, unaware of his diagnosis, went to live in the village of Kingcome. Over time he learned the Kwákwala language. He learned about and appreciated the old ways of the people of the village, and came to understand the struggles of the young people. He became close to many of the villagers, and they came to him for support and guidance. But it was the villagers who would teach him the most fundamental things about life and death.

About the people:

There was pride in his eyes without arrogance. Behind the pride was a sadness so deep it seemed to stretch back into ancient mysteries…

Kingcome villagers…

About the village:

“The Indian knows his village and feels for his village as no white man for his country, his town, or even for his own bit of land. His village is not the strip of land four miles long and three miles wide that is his as long as the sun rises and the moon sets. The myths are the village and the winds and the rains. The river is the village, and the black and white killer whales that herd the fish to the end of the inlet the better to gobble them. The village is the salmon who comes up the river to spawn, the seal who follows the salmon and bites off his head, the blue jay whose name is like the sound he makes—‘Kwiss-kwiss.’ The village is the talking bird, the owl, who calls the name of the man who is going to die, and the silver-tipped grizzly who ambles into the village, and the little white speck that is the mountain goat on Whoop-Szo.

A village at Kingcome Inlet…

When after his few years of living with the native tribe, the young vicar finally understands what is happening to him, and that he will have to leave his place in the village, that someone will arrive to replace him in his work, he  tries to come to terms with such a change, and tries to come to terms with the end of all things.

How would he live again in the old world he had almost forgotten, where men throw up smoke screens between themselves and the fundamentals whose existence they fear but seldom admit? Here, where death waited behind each tree, he had made friends with loneliness, with death and deprivation, and, solidly against his back had stood the wall of his faith.

And what had he learned? Surely not the truth of the Indian. There was no one truth. He had learned a little of the truth of one tribe in one village. He had seen the sadness, the richness, the tragic poignancy of a way of life that each year, bit by bit, slipped beyond memory and was gone. For a time he had been part of it, one of the small unknown men who take their stand in some remote place, and fight out their battle in a quiet way.

It was the village that reached out to him to ease his mind at that point in his life.

“Stay with us. Marta has told us. We have written the Bishop and asked that he let you remain here to the end, because this is your village and we are your family. You are the swimmer who came to us from the great sea,” and he put his arms around her and held her close, finding no words to say thank you for the sudden, unexpected gift of peace which they had offered him in their quiet, perceptive way.

It is a poignant but uplifting story. The descriptions of the land there and the villagers’ relationship with the environment, are beautifully written. It is a quiet, honest book, a true classic, and I loved reading it.

The author, Margaret Craven, lived in the village of Kingcome, in British Columbia, for awhile before she wrote the book. The photos I chose for this post are from that area, so I hope they help give a visual reference for this story.

https://www.sfu.ca/brc/virtual_village/Kwakwaka_wakw.html

Kwakiutl canoe

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