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painting by Paul Klee
CONTRIBUTION · 13th February 2010
Carrie Chapple
Leaf was an amazing woman, with a level of energy that belied her years. Megan thought that Leaf was a geriatric whirling dervish, spinning here, there and every where, both physically and mentally, her words barely able to keep up with the speed of her mind. Sometimes, Megan thought, it was exhausting just listening to Leaf, never mind trying to keep up. Leaf was unique, one of a kind, no doubt about it. Not for her those “old lady clothes” when there were so many jewel-toned clothes just crying out to be worn.

What captured Megan’s attention was not Leaf’s various projects or affiliations however, but her stories, the stories of her long ago childhood, growing up in the Charlottes, amongst the Haida. Leaf had such a clear recollection, and such a remarkable facility with language, that she could make you feel the bone-deep chill from the ocean ‘s waves penetrating the goose-pimpled skin, see the hungry tide tugging at the young girl’s taut thighs, taste the ice-cold vodka sliding down the firm adolescent throat, smell the smokehouse fires, and hear the Thwack! Thwack! as Leaf’s mother and aunties chopped fish for jarring. Leaf should write her stories down, Megan urged, but Leaf was always busy, although never too busy to share the stories with a friend over a cup of tea and some home-baked bread.

Leaf’s stories always centred around fish. Megan had come from a small rural community, far inland, and thousands of miles away from any ocean.. Megan’s family had been dairy farmers, not fisherman, so words like oolichan seemed like magical incantations, casting a spell when Leaf spoke. It was with utter fascination that Megan learned how the oolichans, or saviour fish, came first after the winter like scaly harbingers of spring, and how they were boiled or smoked, rendered into grease, eaten fresh or preserved. When Leaf told of eating baked bannock, salmon, clams, prawns and more, her accounts of the way the food was prepared made Megan’s mouth water. And when Leaf spoke of barbecues on the beach and how the salmon roe was prepared, wrapped in kelp like a giant sushi roll, Megan could almost taste the saltiness of the food upon her tongue.

To hear Leaf talk, she was related to everyone. Everyone was a cousin, it seemed. This meant that Leaf was always smiling, always eager to meet people, to share ideas, and to share food. Leaf gave Megan a case of jarred salmon and Megan ate two jars the very first day, with home-made mayonnaise and fresh dill, thinking all the while how fortunate she was to be able to count Leaf as a friend.

When Megan moved to the far northern corner of British Columbia, and attended events in the Tahltan fish camps, Leaf’s stories replayed themselves in Megan’s head. There were the fish houses with sockeyes hung on nails and suspended from the rafters. There too were the cookfires with vast cast iron pots holding various delicacies. Everywhere were women calling each other sister and auntie as they shared salmon jerky, smoked salmon, and boiled fish, rice and greens. And somehow Leaf was there too, stirring the pot, pulling in a net, cleaning the chopping block, a ghostly presence saying, “Look carefully. The memories will feed your heart.”

(original, copyrighted work, no reprint w/o permission)

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