I wrote this story for a competition where the last sentence had to contain the words walked the pier again so I decided to give that phrase a specific meaning.
‘Walking the pier’ they called it, but everybody knew what it really meant. In the old days an elder would go out into the forest, or perhaps take a canoe, and never return from that final journey which was presumed to end somewhere in the shadow lands with the spirits of the ancestors. But canoes were valuable and these days the people could not afford to lose one each time an elder went on their final journey while over time the white men came and cut down the forests, building large houses and roads instead. So now the elder would walk the pier instead.
The white men built the pier, a long wooden walkway on stilts that stretched out over the sharp rocks into the waves towards the sunset. It had no purpose, as far as the people could see, for who would walk all that way for some food when ice cream or fish and chips could be bought on the promenade? However, it was popular. In summer time the children jumped off the pier, shrieking with mock terror and waving their arms like fledglings before plunging into the icy water, while the hobby fishermen watched over their lines and occasionally landed something, drawing oohs and aahs from the assembled crowd as the poor fish flapped its life away on the boards of the pier, but the people knew that the best fish was still to be found way out in the bay.
And in the evenings, after dusk had settled and the people had gone back to their homes, an elder whose time had come would walk the pier alone, and when they reached the end, would climb over the railing and continue walking, into the water and the arms of the ancestors. It was as it should be.
But now the white men had installed lights and cameras and emergency phones at the end of their pier, and had erected a gate to stop people walking along it at night. One elder had already been ‘rescued’ from a fall off the end of the pier and brought to a hospital for a cursory check over; then the newspapers got wind of the story and began to write about the sanctity of life.
“Pah, sanctity!” thought Sings Softly, “What did they know about the salmon and the otter and the bear?”
“How can you profess sanctity for life and then cut down all the trees?” she asked but nobody gave her an answer. Only White Feather spoke to her of the need to adapt and to take note of the world around her. He told her stories of the trees he played in as a young boy, trees that gave way to schools and a hospital.
One night as she sat in her small house, mending a dress by the last of the evening light, a shadow passed in front of her and she looked up, startled, to see White Feather shuffling off towards the town.
“It’s time,” her father said, “he’s gone to walk the pier.”
Sings Softly liked White Feather; he had always been kind to her as she grew up hovering between two worlds and had taught her much of the history of their people. She had been saddened when his sight failed and he could no longer fish, although he continued to carve, by feel, until his fingers had become too bent with pain and then he just sat in his chair, nodding to visitors who came to see him, and telling his stories to anybody who would listen.
She thought of him now, proudly walking out to meet the waves and a tear rolled down her eye. Then she remembered the gates.
“How will White Feather get over the gates, if he can’t see them?”
“He will find a way,” her father said without looking up.
Sings Softly finished her mending, then tidied up and put things away for the night, all the while glancing out of the window and wondering what had happened to White Feather; she could not stop thinking about the gates to the pier and how White Feather would not be able to join his ancestors. When the moon reached the highest point in the sky she knew she would never get to sleep so she slipped out of bed, wrapped herself in a cloak, and, stopping only to take something from the shed she crept away towards the pier.
The moon was bright, but brighter still shone the lamps the white man had placed along the street, casting circles of light even though there was nobody around to see. Sings Softly moved around the pools of amber, keeping to the shadows in case anybody should be watching. While she was still some distance from the pier she could see the gates, shut tightly across the front of the pier, but there was no sign of White Feather. As she neared the pier she slowed down and looked around but still she saw nothing; then a scraping sound caught her attention.
She shielded her eyes from the street lights and looked out across the water. Something was moving, part way along the pier, and as she watched she saw a shape clutching one of the posts. White Feather must be walking out into the water, using the posts of the pier as a guide, to get around the gates.
Sings Softly took off her cloak, threaded her way between the rocks along the shoreline and waded into the sea. The cold water took her breath away and she had to move carefully, picking her way around the sharp submerged rocks.
The moon shone down on the water like a beacon, a golden pathway leading far away, and by the light she could see White Feather hanging onto one of the pilings of the pier with one hand, while his other hand struggled to undo his coat, which was caught on one of the nails. He was wearing a white man’s coat, one with many zippers and toggles and pockets that had always fascinated him and Sings Softly wondered if he had left his blanket behind for his family.
“Here, White Feather, let me help you get free,” she said softly, reaching up to unhook his coat.
“Huh? Who’s there? Long Arm?” White Feather sounded confused, calling on his brother to help him, but he must have felt when his coat was released and he stretched out his arms in front of him, moving his legs slowly, feeling for the rocks under water.
“Wait!” called Sings Softly, “there’s a better way. You don’t need to climb over all these rocks.”
She pulled White Feather back towards the shore, holding his frozen hands and guiding him around the underwater rocks. Once they emerged from the icy water she found her cloak and wrapped it around him. White Feather reached out to her and drew her to him in an embrace; his body felt cold, but still strong. When he stopped shivering she led him up the slope to the top of the pier and let his hands feel the bolt cutters she had brought. His twisted fingers tightened over hers and he waited while she cut through the fastenings of the gate.
“Come,” he whispered, when she pushed the gate open, “walk with me.”
He took her hand and they walked slowly along the pier, with only the creaking of the boards to mark their passing. A cloud drifted in front of the moon and the light dimmed on the water, making Sings Softly wonder if the way to the ancestors was closing. She began to hum a song that her mother had sung and beside her she could feel White Feather humming also.
“You went without saying goodbye,” she said at last.
“It is never good bye,” he replied, “you know that.”
“You don’t have to go,” she said, “we could get help.”
“Help for what? No, I have all the help I need right here.”
White Feather patted her arm and they continued along the pier, walking farther and farther from the shore until at last they stood at the very end, suspended above the deep water, listening to the gentle swish of the turning tide, staring at the golden pathway that led from the pier out into the centre of the bay.
White Feather began to speak, recounting the names of his ancestors while Sings Softly hummed. After a while she felt a great calm coming over her and she closed her eyes, trying to commit White Feather’s face to memory. When she opened her eyes again she found she was alone at the end of the pier, her cloak lying discarded on the bare boards.
Sings Softly stood for a long time looking out at the water, where small waves were breaking up the moonbeams, while the tears rolled down her cheeks. When the first tinges of dawn touched the edge of the sky she turned and walked back along the pier, stopping only to pick up the bolt cutters. She slipped back though the gate, pulling it closed then she walked slowly back to her house barely noticing the stirrings of the town with the early morning runners and the thrum of car engines warming up.
Later that day somebody pulled a coat out of the water. A bright yellow coat with a whistle and pockets full of small wooden carvings. It was not long before a crowd gathered at the pier, followed by policemen and ambulances and reporters who gave a running commentary on the local radio shows, while the coast guard boat roared around the bay in a shower of spray.
“It’s a shame, … something should be done, … old customs. The pier was vandalized,….should be prosecuted.”
Sings Softly barely heard the words as she sat staring out at the ocean. Some people came and questioned her and her neighbours; they knew the coat belonged to an elder, and White Feather was missing.
“He is gone,” she told them, and would not say anything else so after many days the white people all went away, talking about putting higher railings and taller gates with stronger locks on the pier.
One month later, at the next full moon, Sings Softly went down to the pier at night and stood in front of the gates looking along the empty walkway stretching out towards the horizon and the golden pathway on the water beyond it. She had brought a handful of blossoms; stretching her arm high she threw these over the gate and watched the petals flutter gently onto the wooden boards. Peering through the bars of the newly reinforced gate she thought she could make out the faint shape of White Feather, as he walked the pier again, for the last time, and she smiled.