The Fables of Iliamna

pic0002By Karla Fetrow

Author’s note: Iliamna is located across the Cook Inlet from the Kenai Penninsula. A companion to Redoubt…it’s a shy volcano that can brood for days below allowing a view of her majesty. It’s within the western flanks of this volcano that Nothern Dynasty wishes to develop the world’s largest open pit mine.

A green morning is one in which the sun shines so deeply and richly through the trees, the leaves sparkle. Deep, blue glade of summer, when the lupine and wild Iris stand at close attention, their rhapsody melting under the screes of the seagulls and swift, thrilling calls of the Canadian Snow Geese. It’s in the middle of the green morning, before the hand of industry comes out, and the spark of mechanical life crackles and hums through radios, motor boats and car engines, that the tall ones glide among the evaporating shadows, whispering tales and the ocean sighs, it was all long ago… long ago… long ago…

Long ago, in the region of the thousand volcanoes, lived a giant people on a secret land between the ocean and the eyes of the sun. While the glaciers covered the earth, their job was to spin the mantle that would once again lend light and warmth. They crafted great valleys and glistening lakes, laying their tapestries one on top of the other, each more beautiful than the last. Their final masterpiece was presented to the volcano goddess, Iliamna. She was so pleased with it, she tucked it in around her, agreeing that with this design, she would be able to harbor fishes, birds and animals of all kinds, from tiny shrews and lemming to the shuddering passage of the mammoths. To reward the giants, she invited them to stay awhile within the land of the volcanoes and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Years passed, and the giants remained, forgetting their duties, seeped in the pleasures of the thick forests, monstrous creatures and sparkling waters. Iliamna, bored with the small humans who rarely sought her companionship anymore, was delighted with their company. Her days were filled with new projects, her eyes danced with the entertainment and attention of the giants, her ears filled with the music of their laughter. What she didn’t notice was that the longer they stayed away from their home between the earth and sky, the more like humans they became. They became a little smaller, more solid in form. They developed a taste for flesh and became avid hunters. They competed against each other for marksman skills, and in swiftness, daring and strength. Some had become quite romantic. They began to give each other names, where once they had been nameless. They told stories of their exploits and their affairs around a camp fire at night. To all this, Iliamna listened, but perceived no harm.

One of the favorite aspects of this tapestry’s design was a bottomless lake. The giants loved exploring its depths for hours, seeking the flashing silver of monstrous fishes who roved between the waters of earth and sea. They were careful, however, never to swim too close to the icy, powerful currents that reached out to grasp and suck them into the great abyss, forever to be lost in the great ocean.

It was during this innocent sport that the tale of lady who dwells on cliffs and he who knows whale song begins. The lady was a favorite of Iliamna as she sought the rearing heights and rolling violence of the mountains, while he who knows whale songs only amused her. He was among the boisterous who explored the dark and seething waters seeking larger and larger prey. However, the lady became drawn to he who knows whale songs for he carried with him the mysteries life she’d never seen. She began to watch by the side of the lake as he plunged in and waited for him to re-surface, a leap of joy and relief leaping into her throat each time he triumphantly appeared.

One day, he who knows whale song was much longer in returning to the surface than the others. Anxiously, she hovered at the edge of the lake, questioning the other divers as they returned to shore. They shook their heads. He who knows whale song was far braver than they were. He had visited the ocean and learned the language of the sea. Perhaps he had been drawn into the waters within waters.

For days, they searched for whale song. The very best divers had searched as far as they had dared. They had entered the blackest pools of the endless lake, shuddering at its frigid grip. Deeper and deeper they dived, past schools of fishes, lurking behemoths of prehistoric memory, and darker, more soundless shapes that slid by without form or direction. These unborn creatures twisted and turned away as something even larger, more awful suddenly rippled within the currents of endless water. It was only a flash, almost a trick to the vision, but as quickly as they saw this monstrosity, they felt drawn to follow it into the channel between earth and sea. Closer and closer they swam toward the corridor until they felt the icy fingers of the sea monster clutching along their legs, sending fear to their bellies. They returned.

Iliamna listened gravely to their story that night. “We have been neglectful,” she said sadly. Your place has been to live between the earth and the eyes of the sun and weave tomorrow’s promise. My place has been to bind the earth with the sea. You must return to your world. Never again must you fish upon my waters or hunt upon my lands.”

The giants agreed. They were sad for the loss of their brother and didn’t wish to incur another tragedy. The lady who dwells on cliffs, however, wept. She pleaded with Iliamna, telling her she would wait however long it took for her lover’s return. If he was lost, he might again be found. Iliamna was moved to compassion. “He who knows whale song no longer belongs to earth or sky but to the depths where secrets are drowned under darker and more terrible secrets. He will not remember you.”

“If he will not remember me, then how could he know his way home? Let me lay by the shore and wait. If by chance, he should appear, he will have a guide.”

Iliamna granted the wish. Where the waters of the ocean narrowed into the mighty Matanuska River, the lady of the cliffs laid down to rest. “From this day forward,” said Iliamna, “you will be known as Susitna, the sleeping lady. green mornings, the lady reposes in gentle slumber, half way between the sea and the eyes of the sun. Her long hair stretched behind her, her hands resting across her breasts, her dreams rise. The weavers take the vaporous threads and craft them into their tapestries. Here, a sigh and a cloud appears, silver ribbed and filled with yearning. There a golden burst of laughter.

There are no nights to close upon the dreaming rumors of green mornings, no final curtain until the thickening storms of winter. We splash in our brown sun where the giants once roamed, and the tall ones still rustle and beckon. Time moves neither forward nor backward, but spreads out like a fan, or like tapestries, one laid on top of another. We listen to the tall ones for they remember best the stories.

This is a greater era for us. We have become the giants, conquering the land, the sea and the air. We fear no flood or fire, no ghostly revenge Yet we who walk among the tall ones wonder about the wisdom of disturbing Iliamna. She has mysteries that have yet to be defined. Iliamna, who only appears in the radiance of the evening sun, and who whispers and summons, revealing deep valleys and golden rivers trailing into the bursting sky. Under her volcanic shadow is the lake whose bottom empties into the sea. The old timers say a monster lurks there. Planes flying over head have described an enormous shadow. There is a rumor that they tried once to catch this great beast. Ten fifty gallon drums were used as floats along a steel cable, yet when the creature struck, it pulled all ten drums down with it.

There are the usual ghost tales; disappearances and strange sightings centered around Iliamna and her lake. They are not pitiful sprites, but powerful spirits, reminding us no matter how great we think we’ve become, there are forces we’ll never conquer. There are beings whose rules are not our rules, and whose visions exceed our own. We can neither subdue nor appease them. We can dismiss them with our microscopes and gauges, or we can believe them. There is a place where the heavens open up to show our past and future. There is a place of endless sky, mountains, valleys and sparkling rivers thawing under once frozen blankets. There is a place where the waters are so deep, they carry into the underworld of primordial beasts and formless shapes not yet given the kiss of godliness. Here, dark creatures lurk, their shadows sliding under the rippling surface. Here, they tell us to remember that life is cradled in the frozen seeds, the nurturing water and the volcano’s thunder. Its new world is our future world. The place is called Iliamna.