A glowering cedar mask – maybe Haida in origin – hung in my father’s den, the colours vibrant even after decades spent outside. Its hollow interior was rough with hair-like fibres that scraped me when I tried to heft and hold it in front of my face. I thought if I could get inside it, I could hide from the empty eyes that followed me everywhere. My mother yelled at me to put it down. I think it scared her when I disappeared inside the over-sized features, my eyes blinking through the holes, like a peeping Tom.
Despite the gargoyle presence of the mask, I loved being in the den because it was lined with glass cased bookshelves and had an old Craftsman-style wooden desk, drawers divided by neat compartments for writing tools. A long skinny drawer right under the main desk held handsome velum for writing really important letters. Inside the bookshelves, my dad placed tantalizing treasures that drew me to them – two dried seahorses the colour of 200 year old parchment, and a slice of shale with a fossilized leaf. And he had stickers. These came in books on art and you cut out the famous pictures, wet the back and stuck them in the right box on the right page on top of the right description. I didn’t know there was a proper order until dad found one of the stickers on the wrong page on top of the wrong description. For a time I was banned from the den. When I snuck back in, I was afraid the mask would tell on me.
At Christmas time the mask was decorated inside and out with coloured lights, so its open mouth and blank eyes radiated red and green and blue and yellow, like a demonic clown. Ho, ho, ho!
My mother hated the mask. But my father insisted it was a rare prize and it moved with us from home to home, finally landing in our run-down family-owned motel on Vancouver Island. Guests filled out their registration cards in the fluorescent lit lobby watched by it’s black eye-holes. When my father died, the mask disappeared. I was glad because my fear went with it.
No one in the family knows for sure where the mask came from but the story told by my father, larded with embellishment, was that he climbed a totem pole and sawed it off. I am sick with shame that this might be true because of the violent disrespect implied by the story and the action. I suspect it wasn’t true, as so many of his stories weren’t. Pot-bellied in his later years, my father was not athletic and I cannot picture him climbing a pole like a lithe, muscular lumberjack, weapon in hand, hanging on to a teetering 90 foot pole, decapitating it, and then carrying the mask and the saw, back down.
The truth I prefer is that the mask was probably a gift. Dad was the manager of a fish packing plant and he was given all kinds of objects from the indigenous fishermen whose catches he bought. I hope my theory is true but I have a nagging fear there may be another truth.