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Loon Ladder

Dreamed 1993/5/13 by Chris Wayan


There's a legend in the Shasta country about a girl named Ishanihura, Loon Woman, who grew up in the hills. A lonely place, and she was the only girl in a family with nine boys. One day, when she was hungry for someone, something, but didn't know yet what, she found a hair in the spring where they swam: a long, long black hair. She stretched it out and found it was exactly the same length as hers. She knew as she touched it that this was who she would love. And she knew it had to be one of her own brothers, for there was no one else. She matched it secretly to each one's hair, until she came to the eldest, Makikiren. It was him.

She let nothing stop her. She insisted no one but her big brother could take her on the journey to the Great Valley where she could find a husband. She screamed at her parents to get her way, a monstrous thing among her people. Appalled, they gave in. She went off alone with her brother.

One night on the trail, he dreamed of a sky-woman making love to him. His sister had crawled in beside him, and he held her in his dream, and her fever was satisfied at last. She was happy. But morning came; he woke first, and finding his own sister naked, wrapped around him, he felt so chilled he dared not even face her. He untangled himself from her sleeping arms and wrapped them round a man-sized log. And he left her there in the hills alone, and fled back to warn the family of the incest-curse that would surely fall on them all. Ishanihura dancing in flames, the necklace of burned hearts around her neck

When she woke and found he'd abandoned her, she felt such rage she vowed to kill him. She trailed him home, and found it in flames: her family had fled, torching their house and all they owned, casting her out, in terror of the consequences of incest. She looked up, following the sparks from the fire, and saw her family climbing a ladder up to the sky, led by her brother.

She called to them, "WAIT!" and her mother hesitated. Her only daughter... she looked back down at her, in the ashes of their home... and became dizzy. She fell, and she swept all of her family with her but Makikiren, who was above.

Ishanihura saw her mother and father and brothers fall and die and burn in the fire at her feet, and she went mad. She pulled the burned ashy hearts of her family out of the fire and strung them around her neck and went raving across the country.

Her brother, her lover, reached the sky-land at the ladder's end--and married the sky-girl in his dreams.

Years later, living with her and their children, he learned his sister had been seen at a nearby lake, asking about him. She had tracked him down at last. She still wore the necklace of ash-white human hearts. He went alone and shot her. She died instantly.

But the Loon still wears a white necklace, and she is still crazy. Bad-luck crazy. I read "Loon Woman" in Theodora Kroeber's collection of Native California tales "The Inland Whale". I just reread it again--the story's haunted me for years. Only natural. I was like Ishanihura. I fell in love with my sister. Like Makikiren, she didn't want me--not the way I wanted her. I understood Loon's secrecy and desperation. Incest burned my heart too. All sex, all desire, has felt ever since like incest, and must be hidden away in shame.


I'm in the streets of San Francisco, near the Castro. Rocky Hill looms above me, silent now in the daytime, though drummers and witches have fun among the summit crags on moonlit nights. I pass Ishanihura as I climb Rocky Hill.

I'm walking warily, as if hoping to stay unnoticed. By whom?

An Asian or Native American girl on the sidewalk ahead of me keeps scowling back at me uneasily. She fears me. I walk slower, guiltily. All men are suspect, we're all molesters, I shouldn't invade her space, walk on her street, look her in the eye.

I pass her, pass guilt, eyes at my feet. The sidewalk gets steeper, cross-streets fade away, and the stairs up the hill begin. There's a railing; I once would have climbed this stair without using my arms, toning my balance, trusting it. But my balance has inexplicably worsened lately; I'm afraid I'll fall. I grab onto the rail and pull myself up as much with my arms as with my legs.

Steeper. The steps and rails are ceramic, baked terracotta. I worry it'll crack and drop me into the abyss.

Steeper! It becomes a spiral stair, free-standing, into the sky... a double stair, my ascending staircase wrapped around a down. Twin helix. DNA!

The ladder between worlds is a gene.

Way up now, past the summit of the hill. Scared. Look down, try to judge how far... see playing fields below me, and the Randall Museum... Hundreds of feet now! i'm tired, my arms ache, but I can't back down and I can't let go. Death if I fall. At last, I look up. I feared this more than down, somehow. What if it recedes into the infinite sky like a thread? I climb above incest-guilt at last, up a spiral of DNA, to an invisible heaven

The top is twenty more feet. It just ends. In the void.

I keep climbing. I don't believe it. Something must be there. No one builds stairs to nowhere. From the land of incest and guilt to... Nothing. I'm at the top. And there's nothing.

Sunset, a stiff ugly wind. I'll be numb soon, and fall.

I take my hand off the rail, balance on the tiny step... and grope in the air. Resistance. A flat... something. A floor.

The sky country.

It's invisible to us. But it's there. All around the stair I feel the round rim of a glassy stairwell. It's not easy climbing off the ladder onto an invisible surface of unknown reliability and strength. And such fear, seeing nothing beneath me. But... I do it.

I've reached the sky country, where I can meet the girl in my dreams. If I can learn to walk blind into the void. Blind trust.

Or learn to see.

Slowly, shakily, I step out across the sky.

LISTS AND LINKS: Native Americans (Yurok and Karok) - Mt Shasta - incest - siblings - fire - ascent - transformation - birds - spirals & DNA - two more dreams of DNA as a stair: Pessimist Helix & Stanley, or, GOOD Dog! - life-paths - flying dreams - home - other worlds - invisibility - guilt - healing from abuse - transcendent dreams - pure digital art

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