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The Unmasking of 'Ksan
 Spray billowed into the air and I could hear a roaring that rapidly grew louder.

 

         "Rapids!"  I screamed.  "Straight ahead!"

The theft of a valuable mask brings sorrow to Dawn's people.  Determined to recover it, she turns to Graham for help and together  they begin a search that plunges them into suspense and danger.  The rugged mountains and surging rivers of northern British Columbia are the backdrop to an adventure you will never forget.

"...there is some fine writing, full of good characterization, great pacing, and a tense climactic scene."
                                          Quill & Quire
 
 

Chapter 1

GrrrrrrrrROAR!

         The terrible sound came from Bear, crouched in the doorway.  Firelight glowed in his fur and flickered against his mask.

         Snarling, Bear moved toward me.

         I tried to look brave as he came close, growling low in his throat.

         Suddenly, his paw lashed out.

         I flinched as the long claws glittered in the firelight.  Then Bear’s head tilted and the mask’s blank eyes stared into mine.  Nearby people laughed, then looked nervous as Bear moved on, searching for another victim.

         Two Native boys used poles to herd Bear past the fire burning in the middle of the communal house.  Several teenage girls sat near the fire, showing no fear as Bear approached.  Then one girl stood up.  Tangling her fingers into Bear’s fur, she quickly wrestled him to the ground.

         Released by the girl, Bear retreated.  Still snarling, still taking swipes at the audience, he was driven by the boys toward the door.  As he disappeared into the night I could hear sighs of relief around me.  Even though Bear was just part of the performance, the mask and claws made him seem awfully real.

         A man with a camera sat beside me.  “What a great show.  Where are you from?”

         “Right here in Hazelton.  I’ve come to watch my friend Dawn.  She’s one of the dancers.”

         “This is my first trip to northern British Columbia.  I wouldn’t have missed these dancers for anything.”

         Other tourists sat around us on wooden benches.  Nearby was the fire, blazing in the middle of the dirt floor.  Steps led to the stage where the dancers performed.  Above it was the painted crest of the Wolf Clan, and to each side stood thick totem poles supporting the roof beams.  As the fire’s smell drifted toward me, I watched a dancer wearing a sun mask come on-stage.  Drums sounded as forest creatures entered to dance, followed by loons in blue robes and delicately carved masks.

         “What do these dances mean, anyway?”

         “I’m not sure,” I replied.  “Dawn told me they’re thousands of years old and ...”

         “You mean we’re watching dances that have been performed that long?  Amazing!”

         “I know they tell the legends of the Gitksan people.  Those loons were making fun of a clumsy chief who fell into the lake.”

         “What about the bear?  It was sure dramatic.”

         “That dance represents some kind of spirit power of the chiefs.  I don’t know what it means, exactly.  Only the Gitksan know the secret meaning of their dances.”

         “Tell me something,”  the tourist said.  “They call this place ‘Ksan, but what’s it for?  When I parked my car and walked past the totem poles I saw all these big wooden houses in a row.  What’s inside the other ones?”

         “A couple show how the Natives used to live before Europeans arrived.  In one of them you can watch totems and masks being made by carvers.”

         “So it’s kind of a living museum.  How do you pronounce the name?”

         “The k is hard, like in the work kid.”

         “So it’s k-san.”  The man smiled.  “This is a beautiful area in the summer, but I bet there’s lots of snow the rest of the year.  Do you go to school here in Hazelton?”

         I nodded.  “I’m in Grade Nine.  So’s Dawn.”

         “So where is this friend of yours?  Have we seen her dance yet?”

         I shook my head.  “You’ll know when Dawn’s on stage.  She’s sensational, good enough to go professional.  Her raven dance is next.”  I leaned closed so I could whisper.  “Don’t tell anyone, but this is a very special performance for her.”

         “Why’s that?”

         “Dawn’s going to dance in a mask she borrowed from the ‘Ksan museum this evening.  It’s incredibly old and priceless.”

         “Is that so?  Doesn’t she usually dance with a mask, then?”

         “Yes, but she uses an imitation mask carved by her brother.”

         “So why bother using the old one, if it’s so valuable?”

         I shrugged.  “Something about feeling close to her ancestors.  She tried to explain it to me, but it didn’t mean much.”  Voices chanted off-stage, followed by the beat of a drum.  “Here she comes now.”

         As the drum grew louder Dawn appeared in a robe of black feathers.  Her face was completely hidden by the magnificent raven mask with its powerful beak.  Firelight shone on the red and black designs as she spread her arms like wings and began to dance.  Her feet hardly seemed to touch the stage as she moved faster and faster, while the chanting and drum beat grew louder.  Around me the tourists leaned forward, captured by the pounding drum and the swift motion of Dawn’s feet and arms as she whirled around and around the stage, becoming a blur of energy.

         Suddenly, the dance ended and she stood motionless.  With a swift movement, the raven’s beak opened to reveal another mask inside - the staring face of a human.  As the audience gasped in surprise, and the human mask shone in the firelight, the door behind us crashed open.

         Bear had returned.

         Although a few people glanced his way, most were still swept up in the drama of Dawn’s performance.  But I was confused.  Never before had Bear appeared twice in the same performance.  The young dancers backstage must have been puzzled, too, because faces appeared around the wings of the stage.  Then someone shouted in astonishment.

         Bear was holding a revolver.

         He ran swiftly across the dirt floor, leapt onto the stage and pointed the revolver at Dawn.  Some of the tourists were grinning, thinking this was part of the act, but the dancers were horrified.  A couple of them moved to protect Dawn, then froze when Bear waved the revolver in their direction.

         Dawn seemed to understand what Bear wanted.  With shaking hands she took off the raven mask and handed it to him.  He jumped down from the stage and headed for the door.  It all happened so quickly that no one even tried to stop him.

         Then he was gone into the night.  Some tourists leapt up, shouting for help, while others grabbed their children to stop them from crying.  The kids on stage were also making a racket, so the noise was unbelievable.  Finally it was stopped by a woman who appeared from backstage and raised both hands, calling for quiet.

         “Please calm down.  You’re not in any danger.”

         “Oh, yeah?” shouted a man.  “That thing, that . . . creature . . . might come back!  I’m getting out of here.”

         “You’re free to leave.  The rest of the performance is canceled.”

         “Aren’t you going to phone the police?”

         “Of course, but at night there are only a couple of officers on duty, and they’re often far from Hazelton patrolling the highway.  It may take a while for help to get here.”

         The man beside me looked at her.  “Are you in charge here?”

         “Yes.  My name is Grace Heslin.  I’m the dance director.”

         “Do you know what’s going on?  What’s this all about?”

         Grace turned to look at Dawn, still standing at the front of the stage.  Her long black hair was a mess from being jammed inside the mask, and make-up was smudged around her dark eyes.  She was trembling, and I could tell that she was trying hard not to cry.

         “I made a mistake.  It was . . .”  Dawn swallowed, then shook her head.  Running a hand through her hair, she glanced at the other dancers and then turned to the tourists.  “I wanted to dance with the raven mask that has been in my family for many generations.  I wanted to feel the strength of my forefathers as I danced in their mask.  Today I went to the museum, then . . .”

         “Then,”  Grace interrupted, “you took the mask despite being warned not to.”

         A woman in the audience stood up.  “I don’t understand.  Why was the mask stolen?”

         “It’s worth a fortune,” Grace explained.  “That mask is very, very old.  It’s a unique treasure of the Gitksan people, so it would be very valuable to a collector.  Most of them won’t touch stolen artifacts, but there are some crooked collectors who would pay a huge amount of money to get that raven mask.”

         “Why did the museum let this girl use the mask?”

         “It belongs to her family.  She had the right to use it.”

         “And her parents approved?”

         Grace looked at Dawn, who was staring numbly at the dying fire.  “Her parents are out of town,” she sighed.  “They’re dancers, too, and right now they’re in Idaho with the other adults.  That’s why the teenagers and children are on stage this evening.  I’m sure Dawn chose this time to borrow the mask because her parents couldn’t say no.”

         One of the tourists looked at Dawn.  “I must say, you sure handed over the mask in a hurry.”

         “I was scared!  There was a gun in my face.”

         “It could have been a fake.  Besides, how did you know he wanted the mask?”

         “What else was he after?  My autograph?  Everyone in town knew I was borrowing the mask from the museum tonight.  People even stopped me in the street to say how irresponsible I was.”

         “And you still wouldn’t listen?  You took a priceless mask out of safe-keeping and had it ready to hand over when that guy came running in with a gun?”

         “Are you saying that I’d steal from my own people?”

         The man just shrugged.

         “Well, mister, let me tell you something.”  Dawn’s black eyes cut into the man.  She was really angry, and she looked wonderful.  “You can take back every work, because the mask is safe.”

         “What?”

         As Grace frowned, Dawn left the stage.  Voices murmured, followed by cries of surprise as she returned.  In her hands was the raven mask.  I laughed out loud, but I was confused.  What was going on?

         “You see?” Dawn held up the mask.  “It’s perfectly safe.”

         The tourist’s mouth was hanging open.  “But . . . how . . .?”

         “This evening, before I went on stage, I got dressed in the raven regalia.  But I couldn’t put on the mask.  Somehow it seemed wrong.  So I hid it backstage, and wore the modern copy instead.”

         “So the person with the gun stole the copy?”

         “Yes, I’m holding the original mask.”

         Some of the tourists applauded, and others laughed at the man who’d given Dawn a rough time.  Then they headed for the door.  But Grace didn’t look amused, and I couldn’t tell what the other dancers were thinking as they went backstage to change.  Dawn went, too, and I hung around the fire because I’d arranged to walk home with her.

         “Can you get the mask back into the museum tonight?”  I asked Grace.

         “Let’s hope so.  Josh has gone to Ray West’s house.  He’s the curator in charge of the museum, so he’ll be able to unlock it and put the mask back.”  She poked angrily at the dying fire with a stick.  The embers flared, lighting up her face.  “Kids these days are so irresponsible.”

         “Hey, that’s not fair.  Can you blame Dawn for wanting to dance in that old mask so much?”

         “No, but is was pretty sneaky of her to wait for her parents to leave town.  They’d never have given her permission to borrow the mask from the museum.  That thing is priceless.  When I think of it being stolen I break out in a cold sweat.”

         Then Dawn appeared with the raven mask.  Right away I felt better, just seeing her face.

         “Wow, what an evening,”  I said to her. “It gave me a bunch of ideas for my film.  Dawn, you’ve got to star in it. The whole thing would center around this innocent girl, see, who gets attacked by a ...”

         She ran a hand through her long hair.  “Graham, let’s not talk movies tonight, okay?  I’m not up to it.”

         “But what’s the matter?  You faked the crook out of the mask, and you sure fixed that tourist.  Did he ever look sick when you brought out the real mask!”

         Dawn gave me a faint smile, then turned to Grace.  “I’m really sorry I took it out of the museum.  When Bear jumped onto the stage with the gun, I thought . . .”

         I looked at her suddenly.  “Hey, I wonder why he didn’t notice you were wearing the copy?”

         “The light’s so dim in here, I guess he couldn’t tell.  Besides, Ezra’s copy looks just like the original.”

         “Who do you think the thief was?”

         Dawn shook her head.  “Definitely not Hal.  He made the first appearance as Bear, being herded with the poles, but he went backstage after that.  When I started my dance I saw Hal watching from the wings.  He was still wearing the regalia and holding his bear mask.”

         “That means the guy with the gun somehow got his hands on a bearskin and a mask.  There can’t be many of those around.  I’ll bet the police will find their man in no time.”

         Dawn glanced at me.  “Lots of bear masks have been made by Ezra and other ‘Ksan carvers, and every second house in Hazelton has a bearskin on the wall.”

         “So, no problem.”  I grinned.  “Those bearskins are all dusty with age.  The police just raid every house, find the bearskin that’s had a good airing tonight, and arrest the owner.  Voila!  The case is solved.”

         “Sherlock Holmes to the rescue, eh?  What if the crook used a bearskin from a house in Moricetown or Telkwa?”

         “Come on, Dawn, relax.  I’m just trying to make you feel better.  The mask is safe.”

         Grace nodded.  “Let’s save the jokes until the mask is back in the museum.”

         I picked up the mask and studied the old wood.  Those things didn’t usually mean much to me, but I couldn’t help feeling impressed.  I mean, imagine some young guy sitting by a mountain stream centuries ago, carving this thing.  Now here I was, holding it in my own hands.

         “I’m sorry I don’t know more about your culture, but what does this mask mean?  Why does the raven’s beak open to show a human face inside?”

         “We believe that animals, humans and spirits are one and the same.  Sometimes spirits come down from the heavens in the shape of birds, then turn into humans.” Grace tugged on some strings, opening the beak to show the staring wooden face inside.  “Here you see the raven transformed into a man.”

         “You mean I could be the brother of a mountain goat?”

         She smiled.  “Sure, or the brother of a beetle burrowed deep inside a log in the forest.  That’s why we respect all nature, because we’re one with it and take our strength from it.”

         I looked around the communal house, wishing I knew more about Gitksan customs.  When we moved to Hazelton my mom started right in to learn everything, talking to people and reading books, but I was too wrapped up with computers to make the same effort.  Then is was too late to ask her questions.

         “Where on earth is Ray?”  Grace held her watch close to the fire, trying to read the time.  “He just lives up the hill.  Why isn’t he here yet?”

         “Maybe Josh couldn’t find him,”  Dawn suggested.

         “I’d better check.  You two wait here, and keep an eye on that mask.”

         “Don’t worry, Grace.  Nothing will happen to it now.”

         “I won’t rest until it’s locked safely inside the museum, like it always should have been.”

         After Grace was gone, Dawn and I sat silently, staring at the embers as the smoke drifted toward the ceiling.  Through the smoke-hole, I could see the last colours of a sunset.  Soon the night would be as black as the inside of the communal house.  I looked at the darkly shadowed totems supporting the roof beams, wondering if I could film in these tricky lighting conditions.  Then I turned to Dawn.

         “You’re sure quiet.”

         “It’s been a rough evening.”

         As she stared at the embers I studied her huge dark eyes and beautiful mouth.  Suddenly I felt a little nervous.  I wished I had the courage to move a little closer to her.  But I knew I would probably be wasting my time.  Dawn just thought of me as a friend, a buddy.  And I couldn’t figure out how to get her to change her mind.

         So I stayed where I was, watching the glowing light of the embers on her face and hair.  Then the door opened and I turned to see if Grace had returned with Ray West, the curator.

         But it wasn’t them in the doorway.  It was Bear.
 

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THE UNMASKING OF 'KSAN. Copyright 2012 by Eric Hamilton Wilson
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