From the bronze Bill Reid sculpture, “Spirit of Haida Gwaii” at YVR.
It was a problem Nula Myska was unable to drift to sleep in the normal way. I say this because in her village, no one went to sleep without the others sleeping too. If someone was hungry, they all went hungry. If someone was laid off from their work, they all stayed home in protest. Imagine during times of war in the bombed out city when all wanted to die in solidarity with the innocent who had fallen. It took someone outside the city to convince them otherwise, someone as it turns out, who was able to use them for cheap labor and conscriptions into armies not their own. They were gullible, yes, and yet compassionate almost to the detriment of sense.
Ms. Myska was a spinster who lived in a tiny hovel at the edge of the city square. “Myska” seems the perfect name for her for it was a word meaning mouse. In fact, no one could remember if she had always been Ms. Myska or if the town had invented the name, her features and mannerisms were in alignment with said creature for she scurried a bit, scurried around the market. She nibbled, nibbled on what the cheese maker or baker featured among his wares, her little spinsterish whiskers quivering. When she was offered cider or wine, she held the cup in her tiny paws while she seemed to lap the sweet liquid. She was too old for anyone to have remembered her family. That was before the war, when bombs decimated stately old homes and government buildings. Ms. Myska’s family must have died then, her mother and father and brothers and sisters, though she never spoke of them. In point of fact she never spoke of much at all. In most villages she would seem as inconsequential as a crumb or a tiny pebble, the kind that gets caught in the ridges of your shoe and which you pry out with a rusty old knife.
But when her sleepless nights began, no one could see the moon or stars. A veil fell over the world. It was unknown at first the cause of the night’s deep impenetrable ink. Lanterns were commandeered for the purpose of checking on residents. It was thought perhaps this was a kind of plague though the only deprivation was a lack of natural light. The town leaders found almost everyone asleep except for Ms. Myska, who was, in fact, at the moment of their discovery, foraging in the forest for mushrooms and nuts. What are you doing? they said. Why aren’t you asleep? How can you even see? But she went on picking through the undergrowth, putting things in the pockets of her apron as if their questions were none of her concern. It became apparent as the leaders drew aside to discuss her, that there was something deeply disturbing to the disorder of a villager acting apart from her village and that this was having ramifications on the larger universe. Ms. Myska had indeed gone off the rails a bit. Perhaps she should not have been named for her animal likeness or once the likeness was realized, her name should have been changed to an animal that went to bed every night, a dove maybe, that coos from the eaves.
Also: Why had they let her stay in a little hovel, the kind a rodent might build for itself from scraps and bits of fabric and paper? It wasn’t healthy. They would move her immediately to one of the wealthier residencies where she would be fed sufficiently and given a warmer bed as well as have the chance to enjoy some semblance of fellow feeling, of humanity. Perhaps, sitting by a proper kitchen hearth, she would begin to speak of her life and the dark oppression of black nights would lift and Ms. Myska would receive her proper due.
Yet it was not that easy. Even after receiving a fresh frock, a bath, a full meal, Ms. Myska found it impossible to close her eyes. In fact, the intensity of her wakefulness increased so that it almost seemed as if Ms. Myska were reacting to the intensity of their sudden and inexplicable attentions. Maybe there had been something about the privacy of her wakefulness and the secrecy of her unnatural habits that had soothed her or felt somehow to be leading her to the natural disintegration of her mind, the steps necessary before her release into the void, the chaos of death. The village was too young to understand the steps leading into that final release. She was unconcerned about the skies. They were always looking for rational explanations. And why would this be her concern. In a month, a year, two years, she would take herself out beyond them and fall asleep on the earth.
And yet, she noticed their frantic concern. She resolved quietly to pretend and then perhaps they may leave her alone.
They had decided to host what they called soothing ceremonies. And so they made offerings to the sky to bring about once again the cycles of the moon and rotation of the stars and so they sent up to heaven in hot air balloons their prayers for one another and for the world so that a predictable peace would rule them. Many of the balloons caught on fire from the candle that gave the parachuted balloons loft and the glittery fabric that was supposed to inspire the stars to shine came falling down like ash and yet no light penetrated the thick black down that wrapped round them when the sun sank below the horizon.
Ms. Myska was treated like a queen. Preserving her modesty, they bathed her in milk while she wore her white gown, they bathed her under the wisteria trellis. They added hyssop and lavender to their ministrations as well as the sound of gentle percussion instruments simulating rain. They laid warm towels over her eyes and wrapped her head in a cotton wrap infused with rose oil. They gently massaged her hands and feet.
Ms. Myska, buried under fabric, soaking in warm milk, wanted to bring her little paw hands to her mouth to nibble on a nonexistent crumb she often kept in her pockets but now no longer had. They believed she wanted fatty lamb and huge boiled potatoes, pies and pastries, sweets they crafted on slabs of marble with precious sugar and chocolate. She wanted to bring her hand to her mouth out of habit. She at least wanted to stroke her whiskers but they had plucked them so there was nothing remaining. Her descent into the animal realm and then beyond that to the subanimal realm of dirt and water and remains and then yet further still to the underworld, her destiny, had been met with protest, resistance. You will feel more human, they said, let us help you. She felt just the opposite.
Every night, Ms. Myska feigned sleep, although, in actuality, that is where the problems really began because what happened is that the skies unleashed a torrent, which as it turn out was worse than complete blackness for the water could not be kept back but seeped into their homes under door frames until at last it had risen to the level of their windows and their furniture and cows started floating away. Houses and buildings were becoming unmoored. What had happened? They wondered one night, sitting on a roof top, the falsely sleeping Ms. Myska sleeping on the pallet they had brought with them.
Because of the extreme compassion of the village, they began to realize they may have brought this onto themselves some of this natural disaster. Why hadn’t they just accepted Ms. Myska for who she is? Why had they sought in her so quickly an instant scapegoat? And so they let Ms. Myska go. They gave her a boat to be free and do as she wished and as soon as she returned to her hovel, the water had receded though her little spot had never been effected. It was dry as a bone, just as an old lady’s hovel should be. At last the young ones will let her do which they all will some day must and inside she did not feel them crowded around her anymore but blessedly at a distance, their benign tolerance sufficient.