Sedna, Mistress of the Underworld
The Eskimos recount from ancient lore
The tale of one without a loving wife.
An Inuit dwelling on a lonely shore
With daughter, Sedna, lived a quiet life.
The girl grew handsomely, till every youth
Attempted to obtain her, for a spouse –
But Sedna, proud and vain, found each uncouth,
Refusing to forsake her father’s house.
At last, upon the breaking of the ice
In spring, an esoteric seagull flew
With gliding, silver, skilled wings to entice
Young Sedna, and a winning song, to woo.
Seducing not with song alone, but words,
The gull swooped towards the girl beguilingly:
“Into the territory of the birds,
Into my country, Sedna, come with me!
The finest leathers reinforce my tent.
Soft bearskins will enwrap you by the fire.
My fellow gulls will listen, make descent,
And bring you anything you might desire.
Their plumes shall fall in fine folds to your feet;
Your lamp shall never lack abundant oil;
Your bowl will never be in need of meat,
And you, yourself, shall never have to toil.”
Not long could Sedna, so bewitched, withstand
Such wooing, sung by one to whom the feather
Came freely – so towards the seagull’s land
They made their way, and entered it together.
Arriving after long and brutal travel,
Sedna rested, only to discover
His song had been a lie, and watch unravel
The lovely story promised by her lover.
Her home, not something any wife could wish
To be, was not of leather pelts, but pinned
In patchwork style, with skins of wretched fish,
Which gave free entryway to snow and wind.
Instead of downy reindeer hides, her bed
Was hard with walrus wool, and she must live
Not on rich, sweet venison, but instead,
On foul fish, which were all the birds would give.
Too soon she found her husband gull had lied.
Regretting, as she shivered with a pang
Of hunger in her gut, how foolish pride
Had spurned her Inuit suitors, then she sang,
“Aja. O, my Father, if you saw
How miserable I am, then you would come
Before the ice and snow beneath me thaw,
While I still sit within this fish tent, numb.
If you could see me in my present danger,
Across the sea by boat, we both would hurry
Away from these, who treat me like a stranger,
While round my bed, the flakes whirl in a flurry.”
One year passed, and again, the sea was stirred
By warmer winds. Her lonely father came
To see the country of her lover bird,
And finding Sedna, heard her beg in shame,
“O, my Father, let me now return!
Hear the outrage done to me. I cringe
To be the teller of what you will learn.”
And, having heard, her father sought revenge.
The Inuit destroyed those who defiled
His daughter, brought them down from arctic air,
To leave them irremediably piled
Within that land which brought her such despair.
(for whom they mourn and cry until this day),
They set out in pursuit of those who fled,
And found the two at sea, not far away.
Over the boat, they stirred upon the air
A heavy storm; within the ocean rose
Immense waves, threatening the helpless pair.
Her father, in this mortal peril, chose
To offer Sedna to the birds. He flung
Her overboard, then, cruelly, he took
A sharp knife to her knuckles while she clung
To the boat’s edge with a tight death grip, and shook.
Her fingers severed, first joints, to the nails
Into the tempest tumbled, there transformed
Upon the froth. They turned to living whales,
The second joints, to ringed seals as it stormed.
Meantime, the seagulls – thinking she had perished –
Allowed the storm to cease. The father let
His daughter back into the boat. She cherished
A hatred for him, helpless to forget.
Bitter and deadly vengeance, then, she swore
Against the Inuit. Once they had stalled
Against her native and familiar shore,
In safety and composure, Sedna called
Her dogs, who waited for her in those lands
With loyalty, from winter till the thaw.
And Sedna set them on her father’s hands
And feet, commanding them in spite to gnaw
Them off, once he had fallen into sleep.
He woke, and cursed himself, and her, and those
Who maimed him, when Earth opened in a deep
Pit, to swallow them, and then to close.
In Adlivun, the couple now reside,
That zone beneath the Heavens and the Green,
Where Sedna – wounded daughter, seagull’s bride –
Is now the Underworld’s eternal queen.
The Native Strain
“We never talk about the Native strain,”
My mother warned in secret, early on.
My father honored her. Our photos – drawn
From generations, grey with filmy grain –
Were never framed and flaunted, on display
Like other people’s. Faces by the dozens
Remained in albums – uncles, aunts, and cousins
Enclosed in boxes, shelved and stowed away.
Her father, although handsome, could not “pass.”
But this fact was as absent from discussion
As crass vernacular, or formal Russian,
Or choruses of “mountain man” bluegrass.
Our Native ties, however, were the sole
Connections we could talk about at all:
A tightly-bound clan, insular and small,
Whose lives we heard as through a locked keyhole.
To read my mother’s scrapbooks, one would think
The Indians were our one folk, for none
On our “white side” received us -- they would shun
Us totally, to be our “missing link,”
So they received her mention on no page.
This was Grandmother’s lifelong punishment,
Dishonoring her people – wild, hell-bent
On “savages,” at fifteen years of age.
No single nor escorted Anglo member
From my maternal granddam’s well-heeled kin
Would travel down by train, nor enter in
To my grandfather’s house, that I remember.
Occasionally, I might overhear
Some snippet of a whispered conversation
Long-distance -- when my wild imagination
Would rampage, and the mystery disappear.
The while Monk drew a breath, I never saw
Those Scots Virginians. Untamed Tennessee
Became an oft-seen, second home to me –
The birthplace of my “alien” papaw
They called “Damned Injun” to Grandmother’s face.
On Lover’s Leap -- the tragic promontory
Where Cherokees maintained the moving story
Of Sautee’s and Nacoochee’s deaths took place,
The ancient Romeo and Juliet
Of Native America— he loved to stand;
On Lookout Mountain, where he could command
A view of seven states, all in a set;
Where Chickamauga Cherokees defied
Colonial encroachment, and no cragging
Of cliffs is customary – there, where Dragging
Canoe once took the Cherokee to hide.
Those were the photos hung in every room,
Of precipice and mountain, peak and bluff:
High, low, as though there could not be enough,
With scenes of snow, by harvest, or abloom.
Cliff faces were the faces we would see,
The hill, the valley, and the still, blue lake:
The earth for whom our forebears would forsake
Their tribe, their culture, and their family.