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Authors: Gina McMurchy-Barber

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Reading the Bones

BOOK: Reading the Bones
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A Peggy Henderson Adventure


A Peggy Henderson Adventure

Gina McMurchy-Barber

Copyright © Gina McMurchy-Barber, 2008

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise (except for brief passages for purposes of review) without the prior permission of Dundurn Press. Permission to photocopy should be requested from Access Copyright.

Editor: Michael Carroll
Design: Erin Mallory
Printer: Webcom

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

McMurchy-Barber, Gina
     Reading the bones / Gina McMurchy-Barber.

ISBN 978-1-55002-732-7

       1. Coast Salish Indians--Juvenile fiction. I. Title.

PS8625.M86R42 2008       jC813'.6       C2007-905732-2

2   3   4   5      12   11   10   09   08

We acknowledge the support of
The Canada Council for the Arts
and the
Ontario Arts Council
for our publishing program. We also acknowledge the financial support of the
Government of Canada
through the
Book Publishing Industry Development Program
The Association for the Export of Canadian Books
, and the
Government of Ontario
through the
Ontario Book Publishers Tax Credit
program, and the
Ontario Media Development Corporation

Care has been taken to trace the ownership of copyright material used in this book. The author and the publisher welcome any information enabling them to rectify any references or credits in subsequent editions.

J. Kirk Howard, President

Printed and bound in Canada.

Dundurn Press
3 Church Street, Suite 500
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
M5E 1M2

Gazelle Book Services Limited
White Cross Mills
High Town, Lancaster, England

Dundurn Press
2250 Military Road
Tonawanda, NY
U.S.A. 14150

For Dave, who always urged me to follow my dreams. And for Aunt Betty, my favourite teacher.


I would like to thank Victoria Bartlett, a true friend and the Queen of Commas; the Semiahmoo Band for permitting me to learn from their ancestors when I was an archaeology student at Simon Fraser University; Kit Pearson and Mike Mason for their wisdom and encouragement; and my editor, Michael Carroll, for his vision and support.


Talusip wipes tears from her face. Her soft skin is creased and ruddy as red cedar bark. Several of the village men lower the body of her husband, Shuksi'em, onto a bed of crushed mussel and clam shells. Now he will lie among his old friends and the young who did not survive

“Shuksi'em suffered greatly near the end of his life when the sun left the village for many days,” whimpers his wife to those near enough to hear. “He never complained, but I know his bones screamed with pain when the rains fell and winds blew. And his back — bent like tall grass heavy with seed — gave him so much trouble he no longer took his daily walks down to the shore to watch the men bring in the salmon. With the days of winter almost upon us, he dreaded what his life would become.”

Now that Shuksi'em is dead, though, his crooked old spine makes it easier for the men to place him on his side like a sleeping baby. Talusip puts Shuksi'em's tools beside his curled body. She knows he will need them in the next world. Then she tucks a large piece of fresh smoked salmon near his head and hopes it is enough to tide him over.

The villagers huddle together, backs against a light rain. Some of the women howl with sorrow into the wind. Others whisper in agreement how much the old man will be missed.

“We thank the spirit of Shuksi'em for leaving us many fine storage boxes made from sturdy cedar, each finished
with our family's crest — the Bear,” says the clan elder. “And for our giant feast dishes carved from the yew tree. And when the men fish at the river's mouth with his prized bone harpoon points they will send thanks to his spirit.”

The young ones remember the times they sat on their mothers' knees listening to the stories Shuksi'em told them. Sometimes his tales were of wisdom or courage. Others, like the one about Quamichan, the flying wild woman who eats children, frightened them so much that they never roam too far from the village.

Talusip recalls the day before death took Shuksi'em how he struggled to finish a wooden ceremonial bowl embraced by the arms and legs of a great frog. It is a gift for her granddaughter's wedding. Talusip's son, Q'am, wants to keep it, but she is afraid of the thing. She has decided to trade the bowl with the Chinook the next time they come to the village.

Taking the large butter clam filled with a paste made of red ochre and fish oil, Talusip begins to spread the mixture over her husband's lifeless body. Her hand trembles and her heart stings. Now she is satisfied that all has been done to prepare her mate for his journey. She steps away and watches the men cover Shuksi'em with a blanket of broken shells, sand, and seaweed in the way her people have done since the Great Spirit created them. Here his body will stay, a short distance from his village, near the shores where he netted fish, close to the forest where he once hunted. Here he will stay forever.


Just when you think you've got it all figured out, life throws you a curveball. That's what my mom, Elizabeth Henderson, said when my dad died seven years ago. And she said it again when she lost her job last winter after Arrow Communications, an advertising firm, went out of business. When she couldn't find anything close to home, she decided to leave British Columbia and go to Toronto to look for work. Then
That's when life threw me a curveball and I found out I would have to live with Aunt Margaret and Uncle Stuart until Mom found a job and sent for me. But since then I've learned that sometimes life's curveballs actually work out to be more like — well, let's just say, interesting opportunities. That's what happened one day when I helped Uncle Stuart in the garden.

I had stopped weeding to come and admire the pond hole he was digging when I noticed what looked like a large round stone emerging from the dark, speckled earth. It was smooth and yellowed with age. I bent down and brushed the dirt off with my hand. Then I dug around the sides with my fingers to make it easier to pull out. But as I was about to pry the object loose, my hand flashed my brain an image and I hesitated.

“Hey, Uncle Stu, I think this thing might be a skull.” It almost felt silly to say, especially after Uncle Stuart
grinned and started stomping around the yard, wailing like some lame ghost. But when he finally stooped closer to peer at the thing in the dirt, I watched the smirk melt from his face.

“Peggy, don't touch it. Get out of there!”

Was he just making more fun of me?

“Go get your aunt right now!”

Okay, maybe not. But now my gaze was mesmerized by the shape in the ground.

“Now, Peggy, now!”

Aunt Margaret and I were back in minutes, standing next to my uncle.

“What do you think it is, Margaret?”

She bent down and examined the object more closely. “My goodness! Is it human?”

Uncle Stuart nervously stroked back his hair. “That's what it looks like to me.”

Aunt Margaret's complexion seemed as pasty as uncooked dough. “We'd better call the police, Stuart.”

Twenty minutes later the place was swarming with police cars — well, okay, two police cars. But to the dozen or so people gathered across the street from the house, it must have looked like a major crime scene. When Uncle Stuart opened the front door, one of the four men introduced himself.

“Hello, I'm Officer Pratt. I'm a forensics specialist. This is our coroner, Dr. Forsythe. Are you the owner of the house?”

Uncle Stuart nodded anxiously. “Yes ... yes, I'm Stuart Randall. I'm the one who called.”

“I understand you've uncovered what appear to be human remains in your backyard. Is that correct?”

“That's correct, Officer,” Uncle Stuart croaked as he tried to clear his throat. “Come through here and I'll show you where it is.” Officer Pratt and the other men followed Uncle Stuart through the house to the backyard. I nipped through the living room and out the French doors just in time to see my uncle point to the spot where the skull lay embedded in the earth.

Dr. Forsythe and Officer Pratt knelt and examined the skull without touching it. Then Dr. Forsythe took out two small tools. The first was a tiny paint brush, kind of like the one I had used earlier that morning when I painted a picture of my aunt's cat, Duff. The second was a sharp metal tool, like the pointy hook a dentist uses for cleaning teeth. He began gently brushing away the dirt with the paint brush. Just when I thought the waiting couldn't get any worse, he switched to the dental pick and started to remove tiny grains of dirt from the crevices. Finally, he nodded at Officer Pratt and stood.

“It's just what we thought it would be,” Dr. Forsythe said, speaking casually while Aunt Margaret and Uncle Stuart hung back like crime victims. “What you have here is
a recently deceased individual.”

“Oh, right, so now we're supposed to be relieved?” Uncle Stuart said. “Good news, honey. It isn't anyone we know!”

Dr. Forsythe and Officer Pratt smiled. “I take it you haven't lived in Crescent Beach long,” Dr. Forsythe said. “You see, this entire peninsula was once a prehistoric Coast Salish village. By the looks of this skull, I'd say you have the remains of someone who lived and died on this land more than fifteen hundred years ago.”

“Or even as long as five thousand years ago,” Officer
Pratt added. “Unfortunately, accidental disturbances to ancient burials like this one have happened often over the past century in Crescent Beach.”

Aunt Margaret's face was still ashen, and now Uncle Stuart's right eye was twitching. While they looked miserable, I felt as if I'd just won a lottery. Finding a dead guy in the backyard — well, that just had to mean something cool was about to happen. About time, too. I was starting to feel like Little Orphan Annie stuck in the middle of nowhere.

“You know, everyone has a few skeletons in their closet, but we're the only ones that have them in the backyard, too!” I quipped.

Officer Pratt chuckled, but Aunt Margaret wasn't amused. “Peggy, that's not an appropriate remark to make at a time like this.”

Actually, I thought it was totally appropriate. Lots of people use humour to release tension at stressful moments.

BOOK: Reading the Bones
8.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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