I’m not what you would call superstitious. Though good stories can seriously get to me. The latest of these was an ethnography about the Even, a reindeer herding people native to the coldest reaches of Siberia. It was written by Piers Vitebsky, an anthropologist who lived among the Even on and off from the late eighties to the early 2000’s. This ethnography is called The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia.
In one chapter, Vitebsky discusses the interrelatedness of human and animal fates. An apparently random animal death may signify one of two things: the approaching death of a human, or that the dead animal took the place of a human who would have died otherwise. When one woman’s brother-in-law hung himself, she recalled a jay that flew into her stove a few days ago and burned to death. She grasped the prescience of the burning jay in hindsight. If the dogs howl more than usual or a swarm of insects fly into your tent, something bad is coming. When Vitya the Wolf Hunter was caught in an avalanche, his dog slid over a cliff and died. Vitya, clinging to the icy slope, realized that he survived because his dog died to take his place.
Ever since reading about the Even, little signs have been peeping out at me, tempting me to impose narratives of causality upon what may very well be random events. I find drowned bugs in the sink. Will there be an accident on the way to work this morning? The car in front of me hits, squishes and kills a skunk in the road. Should I beware a pungent catastrophe? Usually, this is a silly game I play with myself, but one breezy day this past April, it became more than just fun and games. This particular string of signs and little disasters involved an egg salad, a capsized catamaran, and a lost pair of sandals.
Earlier in the morning, hours before we jumped aboard the catamaran, I was whipping egg salad in a ceramic bowl on the kitchen counter. Sliced bread was stacked neatly to my right, waiting to be turned into sandwiches. I reached for the saltshaker and banged my wrist on the edge of the bowl. It spun out of control and soared off the counter. The missile shattered when it hit the floor, leaving a crater of egg salad and white ceramic shards on the tiles. I smacked myself on the forehead and cleaned up the mess.
I was making egg salad sandwiches for a picnic lunch with an old friend, Tom, who was taking me to the bay to teach me how to sail that afternoon. Tom’s a seafaring type, with a salty blonde beard, spectacles, and tanned feet. He picked me up from my house around 11:15, just giving me enough time to start from scratch with the egg salad. It was a clear, windy day, perfect for sailing. On the way down, we caught up on one another’s latest adventures and listened to mellow indie music. The van had the sunscreeny aroma of a sunny day. The clumsy morning lay forgotten with the crusty shards at the bottom of the waste bin.
We made it to the bay and hopped aboard the catamaran. The wind picked us up before I found my seat. Tom, teeming with confidence and expertise, gave a few whoops as we raced north. Spray grazed my face. I didn’t see any need to tie down my sandals. Tom gave me some basic lessons about how to jibe and tack. As we molded into a semi-decent team, we took more liberties, letting the hulls lift out of the water in turn to fly with breeze. A fierce puff came our direction, and we took it. The catamaran tilted almost horizontal, the two of us leaning from our ankles over the soaring hull. We kept lifting. I figured it was normal, until I found myself pencil diving towards the water as both sails bellyflopped next to me. We had capsized. In the 5 milliseconds it took me to fall, I recalled the smashed egg salad.
With much heaving, uncoordinated pulling, and the assistance of a lifeguard who came whizzing our way on a jet ski, we righted the catamaran. I looked around for my sandals. Nowhere to be seen… by then they were at the bottom of the bay, where they’d joined a treasure trove of junk lost by capsized sailors. I should have known, of course, that something like this would happen. The smashed bowl was obviously a missed sign that something else would tip over that day, the eggs on the dirty floor a prophecy for something that would be lost.
The rest of the day was colder because we were soaked, but it was fun because we became a better sailing team and managed to keep both feet on board. On the way back, I told Tom about the Even, and how my morning spill may have foretold our afternoon spill. He responded with the suggestion that this was a case of mistaken causality, but I wasn’t incredibly interested in whether or not I was mistaken. I was more intrigued with my willingness to allow my perception to be refracted by this new set of stories.
I suppose it can be fun and even enchanting to take a vacation from the rationalist narratives I usually tell myself to explain phenomena. Without the Even, it would have been a disappointing day. Broken dish, wasted eggs, soaking clothes, lost sandals. I may have walked away angry with myself for my recklessness. Read through Vitebsky’s ethnographic account, however, the day unfolded as a charming lesson about how our smaller mistakes are connected with our big ones. I think I’ll take the enchantment over the rationality.
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