1918 Summer –– “Grandmother, if you had to describe yourself in a letter to someone you hadn’t met, what would you say?” She spoke to her elder in Karuk, Lahda’s first language. She’d learned English at the local day school she and her brother, Weitchpec, attended in Somes Bar, though the town was known to her people as Ka’tim’íin and thought of as the center of their world.

“It’s of no matter, child. All the people I need to know are right here.”

“I have a school assignment, and I’m having trouble.”

“Such nonsense.”

“But, grandmother, what would you say if you had to?”

“Let me look at that weave?” She reached out for the unfinished cooking basket in Lahda’s lap. Braiding strands stuck out from a warp rib, waiting for their turn. Willow sticks for the foundation, black strings of maidenhair and red-dyed woodwardia fern, bear grass, and spruce roots for the overlay.

“You’re changing the subject.”

“This is nice work you have done, child. See this pattern.” She pointed to her basket. “This is nutihániich.”

Yes, grandmother. Flintlike – nutihániich. You’ve taught me these basket patterns and their names since I was old enough to talk.”

One of Lahda’s favorite pastimes was collecting plants for basket materials with her family and village. She was proud to learn these skills from her elders and be part of preserving the vast knowledge of plants and their uses that her people had held for thousands of years. Plants provided Karuk with food, medicine, ceremonial and basket materials, clothing, and embellishments for regalia. She wanted to absorb as much knowledge as she could. There was so much to learn; would she live long enough?

“Please, Grandmother, I need your help. I don’t know how to describe myself to a stranger.”

“Awwwk…child…you distract me from my work for such a thing?”

“Please.”

“Alright. Let me be.” Grandmother scratched her face near where her three vertical black tattoos followed the curve of her lower lip to the bottom of her chin. Her slightly slant-eyed gaze swept over Lahda’s hair and face and then lingered on her eyes. “This is the story of you.”

 

Your eyes are dark like a shaded river pool, but when warmed by the sun, they flash brown and gold like the cattail. Your hair flows black as the night-river, your waves catching the moonlight. Your face is oval like a well-worn river stone; your skin is smooth like an acorn’s shell and similar in color to one that has dried.

 

Lahda raised her eyebrows in surprise, “that…that sounds so…so…beautiful.”

“You are beautiful, Lahda. You make me a happy old grandmother.” She laughed at herself and patted Lahda’s hand.

“I think I will get the best grade in the whole class. Yôotva’ ‘thank you’ for helping me even though you thought it was silly.”

“What are grandmothers for but to indulge their grandchildren, who are like noisy jays with their questions.”

#

            After she’d finished the large cooking basket that summer, Lahda’s mother fell sick with chills and fever.

Karuk medicine woman, Neenáree, tended to the sick. Her frame was short and thin, and her coal-black hair tied back from her face cascaded down her back, loose. She wore many shell necklaces, a show of her wealth and wisdom.

“Is she getting better?” Lahda asked the healer.

“Not yet, but I’m giving her alder tea. It could help cure her.”

“What does she have?”

Neenáree turned to Lahda. The medicine woman’s eyes, the color of dried acorns, were wise and knowing, “It’s the grip. I’ve seen more of it along the river in recent days. I will do all I can, child.”

Lahda had heard of grip, what the Whites called “Spanish Flu.” Still, her people weren’t following the county ordinances to wear masks. They hadn’t been quarantined like some of the lumber camps downriver. Besides, there was no one to enforce the mask-wearing among the more isolated river villages.

They prayed, sang to the spirits, and held healing rituals as they would typically do for sickness to ward off the contagion. Going to a hospital or the Red Cross for treatment was foreign to the Klamath Tribes, to die among strangers even more so.

The healer and Lahda stood in the small room in the cedar plank house, her mother under blankets on the platform bed, her breath rattling as she slept. She couldn’t talk or notice them because her fever was so high.

Lahda’s father had stoked the fire in their large river stone fireplace, which effused the dwelling house with soft orange light. The oil lamp at her mother’s bedside added to the glow.

Lahda didn’t know what to say, and even though she tried not to cry, she couldn’t stop, her tears making snake-like lines as they fell.

“How can I help?” She said as she swiped at the dampness on her face and then leaned in to mop the sweat from her mother’s forehead.

“Help her drink this alder tea over the next day and a half. I’ll be back to check on her then.”

Enlisting her father and brother, the three of them took turns throughout the day and night trying to coax Lahda’s mother to down as much of the tea as she could. Her cough and fever had gotten worse, not better, and it made swallowing difficult. “She’s not getting enough, father.”

“We will keep trying. A little is better than none.”

“Maybe we should try to give her smaller amounts more often,” Weitchpec said.

“Good idea, son.”

Lahda stayed by her mother’s side all that night and wouldn’t let her father or brother spell her.

“Lahda, you need to sleep and eat, or you, too, will get sick.” Weitchpec pulled her up from the chair next to her mother.

“I don’t want to leave her. She’s getting worse, brother.” Again, she couldn’t help the tears that rolled down her face and fell on her soft cotton dress, dampening the collar.

“I’ll stay with her while you sleep, Lahda. Go. I’ll make sure to give her the tea.”

“Okay. But wake me up as soon as Neenáree arrives. She will come in the morning.”

“I promise.”

#

             “Lahda…Lahda, wake up. The healer is here.” A hand on her arm broke her deep sleep.

Groggy, Lahda rubbed her eyes to see her brother standing over her where she’d placed her bedroll near the fire. Its light was out.

“How is mother?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe about the same. Neenáree is in with her. Are you hungry? You haven’t eaten much.”

“No, I want to see mother.”

“Neenáree has asked that we all wait out here.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Neenáree and Father talked before she went to Mother. I didn’t hear.”

The siblings sat at the table near the stove while a pot of venison stew heated. The pepperwood leaf and garlic spiced the room, and it smelled delicious along with the cooking meat. Lahda’s stomach rumbled, and as she rubbed her belly to lighten the pressure there, an unease filled her, leaving no room for food.

“I just can’t think about it, Weitchpec.” She got up and paced the room, trying to push the dark worries from her mind.

Before her brother could respond, the Karuk Medicine Woman emerged from their mother’s room. Lahda tried to find answers on the woman’s face as if she were working on a multiple-choice test question at school. Was it answer B or C, or all of the above?

“It’s time.” Neenáree wiped her hands with a cloth dampened with peppernut wash.

“Time for what?” Lahda asked.

“I will leave the skunk cabbage tea. It will ease your mother’s pain and her journey to the spirits. She should drink one cup in the morning and one in the evening. Don’t give her more. You can split it over the day by giving her half a cup at a time. Don’t get too close to her and wash your hands many times with soapbush.”

Lahda looked from the medicine woman to her father and back. They all knew what skunk cabbage meant. That’s what healers administered to people when they didn’t think they’d live. It was a deadly medicine and not one to be mishandled.

The room fell silent.

Lahda’s father began singing a prayer, the repetitive, low humming coming from deep in his throat, “Mmmm, mmmm, mmmm, ohohoh, ohohoh.”

“No. No. No. No. Mama’s not – she can’t…” then, the force of Lahda’s words transformed into a release of all the concern and worry she’d felt these past days, and she sobbed so hard she couldn’t finish her sentence. Her brother held her as she cried.

#

             “Mama? Can you hear me?” Lahda had tied on a bandana to cover her nose and mouth and then bent over her mother to feel her forehead. Her skin was clammy from the illness.

No reply.

“I don’t want it to be time for you to go to Yumararik, the land of the dead.” She had to stretch her lithe body at an angle to reach from the chair to the bed. She took her mother’s limp hand, which provided Lahda some comfort, but she knew she needed to say goodbye.

“Yôotva for all you have done for me. You’ve taught me so many things, and I know you will be with me when it is time for my flower dance. You’ll always be with me, Mama. I love you.”

Her mother’s eyelids fluttered but didn’t open. Lahda squeezed her hand gently. Faint but still discernible, her mother’s fingers attempted to close around Lahda’s. Through their enfolded hands, it felt as if their souls touched one last time. Lahda didn’t want to let go.

Papa, she, and Weitchpec kept up with the skunk cabbage tea, and Mama seemed peaceful and out of pain. They all stayed near her room, wanting to soak in her presence like a cool rain on a hot day, absorbing the last living parts of her before she settled into her place in the sky.

Other family visited; grandmother and various aunts, uncles, and cousins came to say goodbye but kept their distance. They’d all lost other souls to this invisible foe.

Lahda and Weitchpec’s mother passed at dawn with the three of them by her side. One last exhale, and her subsequent journey began.

#

            Their cousins removed Mama’s body from the house, and Lahda helped wash her and place the dentalium shells in her ears and nose, as was their custom. With the formal five-day Karuk mourning period underway, Lahda and her family were considered contaminated. They participated in the required purifying sweat and other ceremonies, including an incense purification of their house.

Her father and brother ceased their everyday activities such as hunting, gathering, and basket-making, as did Lahda. She helped cook fish and acorns for the five nights they all held vigil next to her mother’s grave so her spirit wouldn’t go hungry.

Lahda needed the time and ceremonies. It helped her to know that it was real.

Her mother was gone.

Marking her mother’s life with honor, care, and attention from the entire village felt right. Death and sadness created an imbalance. Their grief would help restore it.