Authors: Sam Cabot
ALSO BY SAM CABOT
Blood of the Lamb
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Skin of the wolf / Sam Cabot.
1. Indians of North America—Fiction. 2. Murder—Investigation—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3603.A364S55 2014 2014009560
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The Native words and phrases in this book have been rendered phonetically, not orthographically. This is the authors’ choice, to help the text read smoothly. Scholars will shudder; we apologize. We thank the experts who gave us their time and attention and we take sole responsibility for any errors.
This book is dedicated to the memory of Pete Seeger, who loved the river.
hat he could do, only he could do.
As soon as the thought formed he knew it was untrue. It had arisen from his worst, most prideful self. There had always been others, and would be again. Was that not his purpose and his hope?
Even in his own life, though it pained him, there was one more: his twin, his two-hour elder, named Gata, Prepared, but christened Michael in the white church. He whose birth had been easy and whose life had been calm. He had the Power also, had felt it first, but in keeping with his measured nature used it seldom, and always reluctantly.
He himself, christened Edward, had been called Tahkwehso, Twin, by their father, too dispirited at the loss of their mother to give him a name of his own. Edward’s disastrous birth had caused her death, his twisting and flailing, his inability to be comforted even in the womb. The grandmother who received both boys in their blankets as their mother should have passed the peacefully sleeping Michael to their father and held Edward to her, singing softly to him in the ancient language while he squalled and wailed and fought against the world. “He will become a man of consequence. His
actions will set great changes in motion,” she told their father. But whether for good or for ill, she could not say.
And Michael? Michael, she said, would come to a crossroads. He would have a decision to make, one of great difficulty and great weight. How would he choose? Though she was a seer, that, also, was something she could not say.
Enough. Edward shook himself in the cold New York night, shedding these dark memories. Why was he dwelling on the past? Because his brother was near? Yes, but not near enough to stop him, and unaware of Edward’s task, unaware even that Edward was in the city.
The task should have been Michael’s. Michael was firstborn, Michael was bigger, stronger: Michael should have led. Edward would have followed, willingly. That would have been the correct beginning. But Michael had made a different choice. He went another way, the white way: university, medical school, research fellowships! Edward found himself snarling at the thought of his brother’s choices. What did those things mean? What could they do for their people?
A cold wind raised the hair on the back of his neck. Not even in this slush-soaked February twilight were the city streets empty. His brother was thriving here but Edward hated this place, its never-ending onrush of sounds and smells, its whirling tumult that would not let him rest and silenced the ghosts of his ancestors.
But not forever.
He loped along, staying in the shadows. The thick fur coat that covered him kept the icy air at bay, although his rising excitement as he contemplated the task ahead provided its own warmth. Once he had the mask, preparations would be complete. The ceremony would be held. Others would be freed, first a few, then many.
Natural order would be restored, ancient wrongs would be righted. It would take time; but once it began it could not be stopped any more than a raging fire could be hounded back into lightning in the sky.
When all was accomplished the world would be different and the people free. And he would shed the two names he hated, Tahkwehso and Edward, and take his true name.
The tracker Wolf.
oes it seem to you it’s changed much?”
Livia Pietro leaned toward her friend to catch her words, torn away by the wind howling up from the East River. “You mean New York?”
“Since you were last here.”
Livia considered. “New York changes overnight, I think. So different from Rome. It’s been nearly eight years—yes, I see a lot that looks new to me.”
Katherine Cochran laughed. “Oh, so do I. You have to walk down every street in every neighborhood every six months just to keep up. But I meant, the sense of it. With all the building up and tearing down, it always feels like the same place to me. I don’t know how it does that. Maybe the Park, and the rivers, the harbor. The fact that it has borders. And maybe the landmark buildings that don’t change. I suppose they keep it, I don’t know, grounded. Does that make sense?”
“I think so. It’s as though this New York is only the latest, just one of many, and the original New York is still here underneath it all.” Livia tightened her gloved hand on her collar. They were fighting their way east through the end of a February afternoon. Mounds
of frozen slush threw purple shadows and the streetlights had long since come on. “Who decided we should walk?”
“Oh. Well, I’d been in those stuffy conference rooms all day, so my judgment was off. I just hope this mask is worth it.”
“Now there’s gratitude for you. Everyone at the conference would trade their grandmother for a private look at this Ohtahyohnee
I include my dear friend Dr. Pietro in my exclusive by-invitation viewing and she complains about a little subzero windchill?”
“Promise me there’ll be hot coffee afterwards.”
“If I know Sotheby’s”—Katherine reached for the handle of the auction house’s heavy glass door—“there’ll be hot coffee here.”
There was hot coffee. There was also the offer of tea if that was preferred, and a multi-pastel plate of
, New York’s newest pastry fad. All this, of course, the black-clad gallery assistant diffidently told them, was to be enjoyed only at the end of the conference table that did not have velvet padding set out ready to receive the artwork Dr. Cochran and her guest had come to see.
“Yes, of course.” Katherine brushed her fingers through her cap of short silver hair and smiled at the young woman. The assistant had no sooner drifted out with their coats than another woman bustled in.
“Katherine! So glad to see you! It’s a hideous day, isn’t it?” She embraced Katherine and turned her smile to Livia. Her dark hair was gathered into a tight chignon and her black Armani suit and red silk blouse broadcast taste and affluence. “Dr. Pietro! Katherine speaks so highly of you. Estelle Warner. Delighted you could come. My assistant is fetching our Ohtahyohnee
I thought you might want to thaw out first. Coffee?”
They gathered cups, saucers, and
and sat at the
non-velvet end of the polished table. “So,” Estelle Warner said, “how’s the conference?”
“I’m learning a lot,” Livia answered, warming her hands on the delicate cup. “Indigenous art isn’t my area, so almost everything I’m hearing is fresh and fascinating.”
“Oh, but the Americas aren’t exactly uncharted waters to you, either.” Katherine turned to Estelle Warner. “Livia’s been doing work lately in representations of the New World in the art of Europe. Mostly it’s purple mountains’ majesty and amber waves of grain, but sometimes our blankets and pots make an appearance.”
“The area’s not been my main focus for years now, but it’s interested me since graduate school,” Livia said. “I thought I’d go back to it for a while. Surprisingly little’s been written about it.”
And a lot of what has is by me, though the learned papers have other names on them; graduate school was a long time ago.
She didn’t say that aloud, though, nor did she elaborate on the need, deeper than merely an old interest, that had driven her to this work: the sense that for a while she needed to turn away from medieval art, Renaissance art, the art of Europe, art heavily focused on the Catholic Church and Christian symbology. That art—the paintings, the frescoes, the statuary, and the churches—was her true love, and without question she’d return to it; but what had happened last autumn in Rome needed time to become part of her, to re-shape her understanding of the world. Changing the focus of her work would allow her heart to continue that process at its own pace.
And being Noantri, she could give it all the time it required.
“Livia presented a brilliant paper this morning, tracing the earliest images of maize in Europe,” Katherine was saying to Estelle. “Beautiful slides, too. Some frescoes from the Vatican that actually drew gasps. I don’t think anyone in the room had seen them before.”
She leaned in and stage-whispered, “They’re in the private apartments.”
“Quite a coup,” Estelle Warner said. “Livia—may I call you Livia? Are you the first to study them? How did you know they were even there?”
Livia sipped coffee to keep herself from laughing. Estelle Warner was Sotheby’s Specialist in Native Art, so the Vatican was of little use to her; but a historian with access at the Holy See could be a valuable chip in a game of Specialists one-upping each other. “I suppose I am the first, for what that’s worth. I’ve been in Rome a long time. I have friends who can sometimes sneak me into places.”
Estelle nodded genially, clearly filing that in some mental database. “Well, I’m very glad Katherine snuck you in here. I think you’ll be happy with what you see. Oh, here’s Brittany now. Put it down here, darling. Would you like to stay? These are very erudite women. Dr. Livia Pietro from Rome, and of course you know Dr. Cochran from the Met. You’ll learn a great deal being a fly on the wall, I’m sure.”
A different young assistant, also dressed in protocol black, had entered pushing a cart that held a large wooden box. She retreated to a seat halfway down the table, while the other three women stood. The box, thirty inches in height and width, four feet in length, was simple and beautifully crafted, though of no great age. Native art might not be Livia’s area, but she knew enough to be sure that an artifact like the one they were about to view would have originally been wrapped in ceremonial blankets, possibly placed in a deer-hide sack. This hard-sided box, no doubt cushioned and fabric-lined, was a collector’s way of protecting his possessions.
Estelle put on a pair of white cotton gloves and unlatched the lid of the box. She reached in to remove a large carved wooden mask
and laid it on the center of the velvet pad. For a moment no one spoke.
Then, “Oh, my God,” Katherine breathed. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Nor had Livia. As Arts of the Americas Curator at the Met, Katherine’s detailed knowledge was much wider than Livia’s, but Livia’s studies had given her a glancing familiarity with indigenous American typologies. This mask was something entirely new to her. And not only to her. At the Indigenous Arts conference she and Katherine were attending, this Ohtahyohnee
was the talk of the hallways.
Hoping to leverage the gathering of experts and scholars at the biennial conference, many of New York’s museums were exhibiting their Native art, presenting speakers and programs, dance and music. Because so many collectors came to New York either for the conference or the satellite events, the major auction houses also chose this week for their Native art sales. Christie’s and Bonhams had their own consignments of baskets, blankets, silver and turquoise. The focus, however, was on Sotheby’s, and of all the objects on offer, this mask—known so far only from photographs and descriptive text, not to be displayed until immediately before the sale per the owner’s instructions—was carrying the day.
Gray-painted, touched with fine lines of black, white, and red, the wooden head shared with the masks of the Iroquois False Face Societies an elongated asymmetry that gave it ferocious vigor. But none of the highly secretive Societies had stepped forward to claim this mask. No one had demanded its return or explained its use. The art historians and the ethnographers were stumped and theories abounded. They all agreed on one point, though. This mask’s savage bright teeth, its long, sharp snout, wrinkled as though it had
detected a scent, its carved thick fur, its cocked and pointed ears—one forward, one back, so as to miss nothing—and the tremendous muscular power in the jaw and throat left no room for doubt. This was a wolf.
Yet the eyes, Livia thought. Fierce, burning, almost gleeful, the eyes of a predator watching its prey: but in their black-painted depths, in their shape and shading, a shadow of something else. She waited, hoping this sense would become clearer, but felt nothing more.
“It’s true, then,” Katherine said. “The photographs—it’s extraordinary.”
Estelle smiled. “I’ve had time now to get familiar with it, but I have to tell you, it still takes my breath away. You can practically see it sniffing the air, crisscrossing the ground. There’s another Mohawk word for ‘wolf’ but Ohtahyohnee is more active. It means wolf-as-tracker. It’s what the owner insists on calling this and it certainly fits. Livia? What about you? What do you think?”
Livia chose her words carefully. “It’s astounding. And unique, I think? Wolf masks weren’t common in the Northeast?”
“Extremely rare. When this one came to us I was skeptical—I mean, I was knocked over, but still. And I know around the conference there’s a lot of doubt. But the mask’s provenance is impeccable.”
“You can find hints,” Katherine said. She hadn’t taken her eyes off the mask. “References. Faint, and you have to know what to look for and where. Some of the earliest Jesuit missionaries were apparently allowed to see them, and to attend ceremonies, though they were asked not to speak about them. So even their obsessive note-taking doesn’t include much in the way of animal masks. From what I can gather, there were never many, in any case. Even the
tribes that used them didn’t always have one. Certain kinds of damage would require one to be ceremonially destroyed, and a new one was only created if someone received instructions in a dream.”
Livia asked, “What were they used for? What was the ceremony?”
“That’s not recorded. The few missionaries who mentioned them never said how they were used.”
“Sounds like a major omission, based on the Jesuits I know.”
“Oh, it has to be deliberate. And once the Jesuits were gone, animal masks never appear again in accounts of the Eastern nations. Estelle, where did it come from?”
Estelle shook her head. “The seller insists on staying anonymous. The provenance, as I said, is completely convincing and will be provided to the buyer, but even they won’t get the seller’s name. But Katherine, this will interest you. The provenance starts with a Jesuit missionary. The first mention of the mask, in the household inventory of an Irish family called Hammill from 1790, says it was acquired years earlier from a Father Etienne Ravenelle by the owner’s grandfather.”
“Really? 1790, someone’s grandfather—Ravenelle would have sold it or given it to the grandfather right around the time he was ordered back to France.”
“I suppose he didn’t want to take it with him.”
“Or he was worried he wouldn’t make it. In those years the British were hanging Catholic priests wholesale when they found them. How did Ravenelle come to have it?”
“The inventory doesn’t say that or anything else about it. Just lists and describes it.”
“Specifically enough to be sure it’s this same piece?”
“Minutely. A very detailed description, and see this nick next to the stripe at the ear? It’s listed, and so is this gouge underneath, here,
and a few others. Almost as though the owner didn’t want to be blamed for the damage.”
“Maybe he was told it was a valuable piece when he inherited it,” Livia said.
“Doubtful.” Katherine pursed her lips. “In 1790 Indian artifacts only had curiosity value, if that. It’s odd someone would have cared enough then to make any kind of detailed record.”
“May I pick it up?” Livia suddenly asked.
“Of course. Brittany, please.”
The assistant jumped up, opened a drawer in a breakfront, and handed Livia a pair of gloves. Livia pulled them on and lifted the mask, feeling the solidity of it, the weight. She first looked at it straight on, then traced her index finger along the snout, the painted teeth, the curled lip, the tip of one ear. She turned it this way and that, examining the back, the carved fur, the inside. Within, the mask was carved but not painted, and bore what looked like sweat stains where it would have touched the wearer’s skin.
“Has there been a lot of interest?” Katherine had also donned gloves, and Livia passed the mask to her.
“Is the Pope Catholic?” Estelle grinned. “Even here, the European Painting Specialists who generally don’t give us the time of day are clamoring to sit next to me in the commissary. Our phone hasn’t stopped ringing. I haven’t been this popular since my junior prom.” She added, “I hate to tell you, Katherine, but the estimate’s gone up. As of this morning we had it at seven million.”
Katherine shrugged. “What can I do?”
Livia asked Katherine, “The Met will be bidding?”
“Yes,” Katherine said, turning the mask in her hands. “I have donors who’ll underwrite the purchase. They think a major museum is the best place for something this—amazing.”
“I happen to agree,” Estelle said, “but some other major museums are interested, too. And of course private collectors.”
“What about the tribes?” Livia asked. “Didn’t I read about a lawsuit? Claiming they’re religious artifacts, not art, and shouldn’t be sold at all?”
“That involved some of the Hopi artifacts, and they’ve been withdrawn while it’s litigated. But most of what we have here is unattributed or orphaned, or can be supported by bills of sale.”
Katherine and Estelle exchanged glances. “The tribe that created this Ohtahyohnee is long gone,” Katherine explained. “According to the Hammill papers they were one of the Huron tribes, wiped out by European diseases and Europeans. No one’s left to lay claim.”
Both women had the grace to look sheepish. Livia, a guest here, didn’t pursue it. The history of art collecting did not bear close inspection, anywhere in the world, at any time.