CHAPTER ONE When I wake in the morning, first thing, I listen to the sa. If I hear the water quietly licking the sand, I know it's a fine day for washing clothes in the creek or fishing and gathering clams and mussels on the beach. But if I hear waves crashing on the shore, I know a storm is here or coming. That was the sound that greeted me this morning. Too bad. I wanted to catch some sculpin and pogy for my thirty-eighth name day dinner. Well, I was used to storms. There was plenty of inside work to do. We sisterhood women were weaving new grass mats for the church. That's what I decided to do on his early winter morning in the year 1938. But I didn't feel like getting up yet. Something was nagging at me. I huddled under the covers and felt a longing for Katya, my aacha. Not everyone is lucky enough to have an aacha. It's a special friendship, like when two people have the same birthmark or birthday. Katya and I were born on the same day, same time, same place, and nursed from the same breast. My mind drifted back to our twelfth name day, the last one we celebrated in Umaka where we were born. Everyone in the village was there. Of course, there weren't so many people in Umaka, only fifty-two. There weren't many visitors from other places either. Umaka is located at the end of the Aleuotian Islands, hard to get to from other villages, including Akusha where I live now. It didn't matter. We had everything we needed right there. We dug our houses into the side of a hill, partly underground, like our ancestors. We warmed those barabaras with stone lamps that burned seal oil. We made everything we needed. There was no store except shelves in the secnd chief's kitchen, loaded twice a year when supply ships arrived. All the guests brought food to the party, all except Matrona, my godmother. She surprised Katya and me with a gift of spirit dolls, one for each of us. I still dream about my doll. It was woven from rye grass and had black stones for eyes. Matrona told me to hold that doll whenever I did something that might upset my ancestors. Angry ancestors can cast an evil spell, but she said my doll was stuffed with good spirits. Katya's and my spirit dolls were twins, like Katya and me. We weren't really twins, but it felt like we were since the moment we were born. Many times mama told the story of our birth. It was a wild, stormy night. The wind was so strong it threw kelp and debris from the beach and knocked people over. There was one midwife in our town, and sometimes Matrona, my godmother, helped deliver babies. Both she and the midwife were tending Mama when i showed up. It wasn't so lucky that Katya decided to make her appearance at the same time. Katya's mama, Efgenia, was home alone when her cramps bent her over. She set out for our barabara, knowing Matrona and the midwife were there. Her arms and legs were so cut and bruised when she arrived, Mama figured she must have had to crawl over stones and brush all the way. She had to climb down the entrance ladder to get inside our house, but she missed the last few steps and fell to the floor. At that very moment, my head showed between Mama's legs, it is said. And when Matrona went to Efgenia and lifted her skirt, she saw the top of Katya's head. A great uproar followed, the midwife giving directions to Matrona, Matrona and the midwife issuing instructions to Ekaterina, our neighbore. "Get clean rags and hot water. Bring boxes to put the babies in." The house started to fill fast. People held Katya and me and pranced around and chanted. But the celebration ended suddenly when Matrona let out a wail. She was at Efgenia's side, feeling her pulse, putting her hand over her mouth to see if there was breath. There was nothing. Efenia never saw her baby. The suddeen bang of the door in the other room jerked me away from my reveries. The family was stirring. It was time to get moving. Our house is modern, above ground, not snug like a barabara. Wind rattles the one window in the kitchen and blows in under the door and through the cracks in the walls. The house has two rooms, the bedroom where Peter and I sleep and the kitchen where everyone else sleeps and all the goings-on happen. The house is larger than a barabara, but our bedroom is cramped. There's only a foot of space between the bed and the footlockes on one wall, Peter's stacks of books on another, and fishing gear and nets in the corners. But I'm thankful for a room with a door and a bed off the floor--the others sleep on pallets in the kitchen. I slipped into my gingham dress--handmade, gathered an armload of weaving grass from under the bed, and went into the kitchen. Paulie, ten years old, his hair standing up in three stiff tufts, sat naked on the pee pot right outside the bedroom door. Alicia, thirteen, in underpants, a sweater, and boots, ran in from the outhouse. She was slender like her papa but faster of moement. She seemed always to be in a hurry. As she passed Paulie, she reached over and tried to flatten his hair. He pulled away and started making faces at her, opening his eyes wide and pulling the corners of his lips down to his chiin. Alicia tried to hide a smile, but it spread across her face anyhow. Her smile reminded me of a crescent moon slowly rising above the mountaintops. I think Paulie liked her grin, too--he went to such lengths to make her laugh. Nicky, my brother, behind me eight years, wearing long johns and jeans, was loading coal into the stove. He had made the stovce from an old oil drum. Nicky makes many things. His hands talk more than his mouth. Nadia, sixteen, in a gingham dress made from te same bolt of material as mine, carried two buckets of rainwater in from the porch. Nadia came to live with us when she was four, after her parents died in the smallpox epidemic in Azian Bay, a village on a nearby island. Funny, all these years and I don't know much about Nadia. She's private, like Nicky. And like Nicky's hands, her wide eyes speak for her. They seem to see behind words. "Wash up," I said to Paulie as I ladled water into the basin on top of the counter. Paulie had made that scoop from a cockle shell. While he bathed I filled a chai kettle and put it on the stove to heat. Then I started kneading flour, yeast, sugar, gull eggs, and seal oil for alaadix. Fry bread is everyone's favorite in our house. I always make it on name days. That is, if I have flour. After Alicia dressed, she plopped down in a chair in front of me, waiting for me to braid her hair. I twisted those soft, long, shiny strands, black as a raven. By the time I finished the bread was ballooning. I punched it down, shaped it into small balls, and dropped the balls into boiling oil in the skillet. All of us stood around watching the alaadix brown and sizzle in the pan. We didn't talk while we ate; that was our custom. But I wanted someone to mention my name day. Forget about it, I told myself as I watched the children carry their dishes to the counter and get ready to leave for school. 'Wear your raincoat," I instructed Paulie before he left. It makes me sad, maybe mad, that children have to wear store raincoats. I used to make kamleikas from sea lion intestines and mukluks from its skin. But the men don't hunt qawax very often since they gave up their skin boats for putt putts. I was pictureing those slender skin boats sailing out to sea. I loved watching the men as they climbed into the hatch, lashed the skirts of their hooded kamleikas to the edges, and gently stroked the water with their double-bladed paddles in the rhythm of a slow dance. I started to feel sad thinking soon people will forget our Aleut baidarkas. I tried to cheer myself by imagining Paulie hunting in the old way when he finished school. Nicky was pulling his rain clothes on, too. He was going to the dock to unload supplies from the ship that had come in the night before. Nadia was packing some smoked fish to take to thie Old Man and Little Hunch. They're two of the oldest people in town, both too crippled with arthritis to gather their own food. So they eat at our table or we bring food to their houses, the two little weather-grayed buildings down by Ptarmigan Creek. After everyone left, I picked up some strands of grass and started to weave. Weaving is my passion. But this day my attention wandered. I got up and went over to the shelf holding a fish Nicky had carved from walrus ivory. i fondled it, put it back, and thught of weaving again. I went to the bedroom to get some grass I'd dyed red. I'd forgotten where I put it. I looked in a footlocker holding odds and ends. Ai-yee, Katya's amber beads were lying on top--the beads I gave her for a wedding gift,the beads she was wearing when I found her. If only Katya was here to wear them on our name day. Katya and I have been aachas from the beginning. As we grew we did everything together. We were so close it was like we entered each other. I was never sure if an idea started with her or me. Or if something happened to her or me. I needed Katya like a flower needed the sun. Why had she turned away from our life? A shocking thought came to me--if Katya could reject our way of life, so might others. My own children? No, I would stop them. But I didn't stop katya. I had to keep the peace. I couldn't fight with my aacha.
CHAPTER TWO The temperature suddenly dropped. Rain turned into sleet, then snow, and a howling gale blew. The storm lasted for three long days and nights. On the fourth, today, the sun parted the clouds and cast a pink glow on the mountains surrounding our island. A good day for fishing. I dressed and went to lift my canvas fishing jacket from a hook near the door, but it wasn’t there. Alicia must have worn it to school. I put on a heavy sweater with pockets big enough for line and a knife, picked up a basket and headed for Nellie’s house. She’s my fishing partner. People call her Fat Nellie because she’s round like a ball. She doesn’t bounce, though. I joke. I love Nellie. It is said that Nellkie makes the best bird feather parkas in all the Aleutian Islands. She has a passion like I do for my weaving. She was sitting at the table sorting puffin and cormorant skins when I walked in. They were piled everywhere—on the table, counter, chairs, even the floor. I sat down aross from her, and without looking up, she smile a greeting. “My mouth waters for flounder,” I said. Wordlessly, she got up, anchored her dark hair with a turquoise-colored comb, pout on a lightweight parka, stuffed bacon rind for bait in the pocket, and set out with me for the dock. On the way we met Sylvia South, Nellie’s promyshlennik friend. Sylvia and her husband, Ralph, moved to Akusha two months before. He’s the new manager of the Northern Seas Company store. Nellie had told me Sylvia was different from other promyshlennik. She visits Nellie just to drink chai and talk, not like other whites who come by with a particular mission—the teachers to deliver messages, the doctor from the Coast Guard vessel to give shots, and bosses to find out why someone didn’t show up for work. Sylvia had a long-legged stride; in moments she was breathingin our faces. She was tall, nearly as high as the door to my house, and lean, the bones showing through her skin like someone who’s sick. “Ah, Nellie, a beautiful day—finally. Will I ever get used to this miserable climagte?” Her voice hurt my ears. Maybe she was deaf. She turned feverish eyes to me. “I’m Sylvia South. And you?” I knew she wasn’t deaf because she heard my soft-spoken answer. “Tatiana Pushkin from Umaka.” “Aha. I’ve heard about you—best basket weaver in town, people say. I’d love to see your work.” Before I could say something, Sylvia asked where we were going. “We’re hungry for flounder,” Nellie answered. “Oh nuts. I was on my way to visit you, Nellie. I’ll come again tomorrow.” Then Sylvia turned away from the beach toward the main path in town. “Lordy, Tatty, why did you say you’re from Umaka? You haven’t lived there since you were twelve years old.” “When I see whites everywhere I look, I think of myself living in Umaka.” Nellie opened her mouth to say something, but she stopped. We were at the dock and we didn’t talk when we fished. I paused to breathe the warm air and gaze at the calm sea. The only sound was water breaking against dock pilins and gulls flapping their wings and screeching as they fought over perches on top of the pilings. Plenty of flounder were tugging at our lines. We filled our buckets in a short time. We were thinking of going down to the beach to gut them when my line caught on something so heavy it nearly flew out of my hand. Nellie and I probably had the same thought—halibut. It was a big one. I played that line until my arms and shoulders ached. Nellie watched, so intent I wondered if she thought the power of her eyes would keep that fish on the line. Thoughts of a halibut feast kept me going. I pictured the table crowded with guests. And after eating, sitting around the stove listening to the Old Man’s tales about his sea adventures. I brought the halibut in. It weighed maybe forty pounds. We carried it and the bucket of flounder to the water for cleaning. Paulie and Nellie’s son Gavril were standing near the shore watching my brother Alexi mend a broken rib of his baidarka. Alexi, three years older than me, is one ofd the last men in the village still hunting in a skin boat. Most of the others use skiffs and dingies and a few have dories. “Ah, Nell, I still see up heling Alexi build his first baidarka.” Twenty years had passed and the memory was still sharp as a spearhead. We kids had combed the beches for driftwood for the boat frame. No trees grow in our country so we collect what wood the tides wash in. Leonty Sherebin, second chief, was in charge of construction. He coached the younger men. Leonty was blind, but the best carpenter in all the Aleutians. His wife, Parascovia, was a start, too—the best skin sewer in town. She guided the making of the sea lion cover for the boat. I was part of the crew that helped her cut, stretch, and sew that qawax skin onto the boat. A moon, round as a ball, lit the beach the night the boat was finished. Maybe half the people in town joined the celebration. Leonty, his silver h air shining gold in the moonlight, wore a shoulder-length mask with a walrus carved on its face and sang and thumped on his sealskin drum. His beat was slow at first. Then it got faster and more stirring. He changed and shouted at the top of his lungs, kickhig his bowed legs and leaping in the air over and over until he fell to the ground exhausted. After that Parascovia danced and shook rates she’d made from the beaks of birds. The rest of us chanted, slower, quieter, like a child’s bedtime song. The party ended with Innokenty, first chief, telling stories about his ancestors. We sat in a close circle around him to make sure we didn’t miss his soft-spoken words. The memory set off a deep longing. I tapped Nell’s shoulder. “I have a vision, Nell. I see Gavril and Paulie building a baidarka when they’re older.” “Why wait for them? Anton could build one right now if he’d just forget about that school.” Anton, sixteen, my oldest child, was the first in our town to go to higher school, the Indian school in Oregon. “Sometimes I want him home, too, hunting with the other men.” Nellie waited for me to go on. She knew I wasn’t finished. She knew I felt like a forked twig about his schooling. “Anton’s a scholar like his papa. He could be the first Aleut priest in our country. Oh how that would swell Peter’s heart. Mine, too.” Nellie opened her mouoth, then quickly closed it. She didn’t want to say something that might pain me. A moment later, the low whistle of a ship’s horn caught our attention. We ran to my house to drop off the fish and then hurried back to the pier. I kept my eye fixed on the bay, watching water spit and churn. Soon, the darkgray hull of a boat came into view, its red and green running lights flashing in the distance. “Maybe it’s the mail boat,” Nellie said in a lively voice. The government ship, Aurora, brings mail every month. Nellie watches for that ship like an eagle searches for prey. Leters are her only contact with her daughter, Mavra, whio married and moved to New Harbor, a village on a nearby island. I wait for that mail boat, too, because of Anton. But this day, I wished for the fishing boat that carried Peter. He’d been gone a month, traveling with Father Burdofsky to the villages. Once we had priests on nearly every island. But after the revolution over there, they all returned to Russia, all but Father Burdofsky from New Harbor. Peter’s a deacon. It’s part of his job to help father baptize, marry, and bury in all the villages. The ship dropped anchor. Three men stood at the rail waving. I knew two of them were hunters from their chests grown hefty from many years paddling boats at sea. The third man was slender as a blade of grass. That was Peter. He was born with a short leg, so he didn’t train for the sea like the others. He stayed home reading and studying. Now he’s fluent in Aleut, English, and Russian, and a master at translating, too. He’s put our Russian church service, hymns, and psalms into Aleut. I know those three languages, too. But I’m not so good at translation. Peter and I didn’t speak in words his first afternoon home. After we ate he picked up his fiddle and played songs of his own making. A Russian trader from Vladivostok gave that violing to Peter’s papa maybe sixty years back. He said it was build by the same master who made instruments for the tsar. When Peter started playing church hymns, Alicia and I joined in on the accordion and guitar. We three created music until it was time for vespers. The church is our jewel. It has a main building, two side chapels, and above, two gold-trimmed cupolas, one on top of the bell tower. Even though I’ve seen the inside of that church hundreds of times, it still takes my breath away—the brightly colored stained glass windows, tall candelabra with flickering tapers, and icons in dark frames cracked with age. Vespers was crowded. Everyone knew Peter was back. I’d been choir leader for the past five years, ever since Peter was made deacon. Before that, he led the choir. Now his first night home I felt a familiar rush of warmth as I led the singing in harmony with Peter’s rhythmic chants. A few times I was so caught u in our duets I forgot other people were around. Once, I started singing the service in a round. The coprners of Peter’s full lips twitched as he tried to hold back a grin. After vespers Peter and I ran by the sea. That was our habit his first night home. Our town lies on a one-mile stretch of black sandy beach between Akusha Bay to the east and a rim of tall, rugged mountains to the west. The shoreline, curved like a big smile, is lined with houses. Other buildings lie scattered to the foothills, maybe a quarter of a mile. We started at the south end of the beach where the dock, warehouses, supply station, store, and promyshlennik houses are located and ran to the north end marked by the Baptist mission and two-room school house. Winded, we sat down on a log where Icy Creek flows into the sea. I felt playful, so I began chanting psalms like I was a deacon. Peter answered in the voice of the choir. We continued that game all the way home. Peter was tired. He hadn’t slept the night before. You’d think he’d be used to the sea, but the rolling and pitching still knotted his stomach. Lying together in bed, the soft, fine hair on his head warming my breast, he started to tell me about his trip, but he stopped after a few words, and I heard the soft regular whisper of his breathing. I lay awake listening, trying to etch that sound in memory for the day he’d no longer lie beside me. A goofy thought. Peter always returns. I scolded myself and tried to fix my mind on other things. But some will stronger than mine soaked my soul in that fear. I couldn’t still the voice that told me Peter was in danger. I’ve heard it since the day Peter and I went against our marriage custom. The memory sprang to the front of my mind. I had just celebrated by seventeenth name day. I hadn’t thought about marriage until the elders’ council suggested me as wife to Makary, an orphan who lived at the Baptist mission with my aacha, Katya. Nellie filled me in on the details. Her father wa on the council and she listened in to meetings held at her house. Makary wanted a wife and Leonty, second chief, suggested mer. He pointed out that I was a top basket weaver and seamstress and knw how to make boots and kamleikas from qawax skin. Everyone spoke agreement but Innokenty, first chief. He was silent. So the others looked at him. “I almost object.” That’s all he said. After the meeting, Leonty came to me and asked if I wanted to marry Makary. I didn’t answer. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knkew only that I had to get away by myself. I walked by Ptarmigan Creek in the back of the village listening to the mellow chirping of rosy finches. I watched them dart among the willows looking for food, the same way they scurry after grass and sticks in the spring when they’re building nests. Suddenly, swift as the flight of the finches, an answer came to me. I knew I didn’t want to build a nest with Makary. He was like my brother. Well, he was like Katya’s brother, so he felt like mine, too. I walked to the end of the creek where it meets the sea. I remember watching three sea otters splashing in the shallow water, then diving. I searched the bay to see where they’d surface. I started to feel quiet inside. I was too young for marriage, I told myself. Then, in the distance, I saw Peter limping toward me, lifting his right shoulder with every drag of his short left leg. When he reached my side, his voice cracked as he spoke. “I heard the news.” “I don’t want to marry Makary,” I told him. “It feels wrong to think of him as husband.” “Do you want to marry someone else?” “I haven’t thought. It’s not time for marriage.” “It’s not time for me either. I’m supposed to go to the seminary next month.” I nodded, knowing that everyone wanted Peter to train as priest. We’d been without a priest for twenty years, since Father Paul left. I had never questioned Peter’s seminary plan before. But suddenly the thought lay like a stone in my belly. A few minutes passed. Then Peter asked mne, “Do you want me to forget the seminary?” I felt like laughing, but I sealed my lips. Peter kept talking. “Little wren, sometimes I lie awake in bed dreaming that my grandfather and Father Paul and the elders suggest you for my wife. I smile and see y iour heart-shaped face and talking eyes and hear the sound of your laught, like water gurgling over rocks in the creek. But other nights I wake up sweating from a nightmare that they chose a strange woman from another island. Is it wrong to want to pick my wife?” “The elders know the l;aws of our ancestors. They know who fits together best.” “Do you want the elders to pick your husband?” “The elders are the suggestors. I don’t want to fight them. But I wish they’d suggest you at my side.” I reached up and brushed a lock of hair back from Peter’s right eye. It always fell there. Peter did a little hopping dance. “Hey-dee-dee, hey-dee-dee.” And then he said, “We’ll ask Innokenty together. We’ll tell him we’ve decided.” Innokenty was also Peter’s grandfather. He’d raised Peter snce he was six, after Peter’s parents and sister died in the measles epidemic. “Innokenty is counting on you going to the seminary,” I reminded him. “I’ll tell him our son will go. I’ll tell him our son will be the first Aleut priest in our country.” Walking back to the village, I remembered feeling like singing out, like shriking to the sun and sea and sky. “Peter and I are going to be together.” And then, hearing the long mournful call of the sparrow with the golden head, I shuddered. Was our marriage wrong? Was it wrong to marry for love? Our ancestors didn’t. The word ‘love’ wasn’t in our language. I learned about it from American moving pictures and magazines and schoolbooks. Would mama have thought it wrong? Innokenty called another council meeting as soon as Peter relayed our decision. Nellie described this one, too. She said the members’ eyes grew wide when Innokenty broke the news. There was a long silence and a roomful of grim faces. Then Innokenty told a story that still brings a smile to my lips. “This is a story told by my grandfather. Hundreds of ravens spent their days scrounging for food on the beach of our village. Then, when the light faded, the birds flew to the mountains, to a protected place under a ledge where they slept. One night a huge snowy owl swooped down under the ledge and snatched a sleeping raven in its claws. Last they saw of that bird. Next night they set up a guard of two ravens. In the dark when the owl shoed up, the raven guards chased it away. But while they chased one owl, another stole a sleeping raven and flew off with it. Next night they set up three guards, but three owls showed up and one of them snatched another sleeping raven. Fourth day, at dusk, as they were flying to their mountain retreat, a young raven flew off in the wrong direction. The flock circles around that raven ltrying to direct it back on course. But somehow that rebellious young raven escaped the circle and flew off again. This time a second raven joined the first. And the two flew in a different direction from the rest. Just as the flock was about to surround the young rebels, a very old raven instructed the birds to follow those two yioung ones. And the young ravens led the entire flock to a distant mountain, higher than the one they’d always rested on. No owls came that night or the next or the next. So the ravens had a better place to sleep, so it is told.” I felt calm after Nellie related Innokenty’s story, but shattered when she then repeated one Leonty told right after that. “A long time ago, this young man and woman decided by themselves to marry. They didn’t talk it over with parents, godparents, chiefs, elders, shamans, no one. Then they had a child. It died two days later. They had a second child. It had many deformities. It died, too. They had a third child. When it died, the young man and womanb asked the shaman, why. “You went against our inheritance and angered our ancestors, the shaman answered, it is said.” I remember feeling sick to my stomach after hearing that story, thinking our marriage would bring a curse on the village. I felt sure it did several months later when the flu came. Our town had a population then of two hundred—not counting the twenty white. The flu killed forty-three of our people. Including Mama. These memories were making knots in my stomach. I pushed them aside and curled up against Peter’s back, so close I could feel his warmth in my veins. And there, I slept the night.
CHAPTER THREE I woke with a start next morning. Peter was groaning. Loud. I reached over and touched his cheek. "I must have eaten poison. I've got fierce pains in my belly.' His voice was hoarse. I never knew Peter sick a day in his life. I trembled. Leonty's warning story sounded in my ears. "I'll get Anesia and Marie," I said as I hurried into my clothes. Anesia was the last of the old-time healers. She'd been training Marie to replace her for the past sixteen years, ever since Marie moved in with her. I wanted to fly to their house, but I trudged along at the pace of a snail. The path was so slick with ice I had to walk in the snow beside it. With every step my leg sank halfway to my knee. I yanked it out only to sink the other one. It seemed like I'd never get there. But finally I was in her house. A silent house. Anesia was still asleep. "Anesia, Peter's very sick," I nearly screamed the words. Anesia was used to waking up fast. She was getting on, but she leaped out of her bed as quick as Paulie does. Marie rushed in from the bedroom. They dressed in a hurry. Anesia picked up a bag of herbs and we set out for my house. Peter was howling inpain, his hands pressed hard against his stomach. Anesia knelt beside his bed. "Where's the pain? Touch the sore spot again. Let me feel it. Tatiana, bring some oil." I ladled seal oil from a container on the kitchen counter into a cup, carried it to Anesia and watched her gently rub Peter's stomach with it. "Any better?" she asked him. Peter moaned. Anesia leaned over and ulled some markasha roots and wild parsley from her sack. She didn't have to tell me what to do with them. I went to the stove and boiled water for herb chai. Peter was still moaning when I ret urned. I creadled his head in my arm and lifted the cup to his lip. He couldn't swallow. "It's like a shapr knife stabbing me side," he whispered. Get dressed, Peter. We're going to the st eam house. I'll burn herbs for a bath," Anesia said. Slowly, using his elbows, Peter hoisted himself into a sitting position. Then, inch by inch, he shifted his body to the edge o the bed, grimacing with every motion. Suddenly, clutching his stomach, he fell back onto the mattress. Anesia looked bewildered. Maybe she didn't know what else to do. But seconds later, she issued another instruction. "Marie, get some spit from the Old Man." Feeding the saliva of the oldest person in town is a last resort hand-me-down cure. Our Aleut methods used to heal. Nowadays they don't work so well. My knees went weak. I feared they'd buckle. I thought of Miss Parker, Alicia's teacher. She was like a nurse, not trained but she was in charge of the medicines so she got plenty of experience. "I'm going for Miss Parker," I said as I wrapped a shawl around my shoulders. Someone had thrown sand and pebbles over the main path and I was able to run all the way to the school. People saw me whiz by lioke a motor boat. They gathered in a cluster and I knew they were speculating. I rushed into the schoolroom. I didn't know how Miss Parker would react. This was her first year in Akusha and I'd seen her only two times a the store. She had a large square face with bushy brows and two protruding front teeththat hung over her bottom lip. Her ample body looked like it was stuffed into a tightly laced corset. I noticed she didn't smile or talk to anyone at the store. Would she interrupt her class to help Peter? Would she know what to do? Would she send me away without any response? I was gasping for breath. "My husband is sick. He has terrible pains in his stomach. Please come." "I'll be there at lunch break," Miss Parker answered in a cool voice.' I planted my feet firm on the floor. "His pain is so bad he can't get out of bed." Miss Parker gripped the edge of her desk while considering what to do. Her eyes looked soft with concern. But her lips were pressed tight together. "The lunch break is only thirty minutes away." There was nothing to do but go home. The house was quiet except for the slurping sounde of Peter sucking in the Old Man's spit rom a spoon Anesia held to his mouth. Marie pressed a hot towel against his stomach. News travels as fast as the wind in Akusha, and people started to drop in--Nellie, her sister, Anna; Parascovia and Leonty and their daughter, Evdokie, my age. A while later Innokenty came in. Usually he walks with his spine straight. But this day he shuffled into the house, his head bent. His face, lined like weathered wood, had a green hue. And his eyes, usually gentle and grave, held fear. I took his arm and led him to the rocking chair. Then I brewed more chai and sliced fresh bread Nellie had brought. The time dragged until I heard the noon church bell. Soon Miss Parker showed up. I led her to the bedroom. After Anesia described Peter's symptoms,Miss Parker lifted a rubber bag from her satchel. "Fill the enema bag with warm soapy water and bring a buck for Peter to do his business in," she told me. I followed her instructions. Then she sent us all from the room. I heard Peter cry out again and again. A while later--it seemed like a month--Miss Parker called me back into the bedroom. "Come clean the bucket, Tatiana." When I returned from that chore, I saw her giv Peter a sodium bromide to ease his pain. Miss Parker looked scared, too, like she knew nothing else to do. She made a sudden decision. "I'm going to the school to adio the doctor on the Coast Guard Cutter. If I'm not back in an hour, Tatiana, give Peter another bromide." My legs were trembling again. I sat down on the floor right next to Pteer's bed. Nellie brought me a chair. The others sat around the table in the kitchen, just a few feet away from the bedroom. No one said anything. There was nothing to say. Just wait. The quiet was broken when the door flew open and Sylvia South rushed in. "I heard about Peter. Can I do anything?" Nellie shook her head and motioned Sylvia to sit down at the table with the others. The bromide began to wear off. Peter was groaning again. I held his hand. He doubled his body in two. His tears splashed onto the cover. I gave him another bromide and told him Miss Parker was talking to the Coast Guard doctor. The door opened again. Miss Parker was back, panting so loud I figured she ran all the way. She spit out her words, like the sound of an outboard motor starting up. "Dr. Goldsaid your appendix busted, Peter." Ghe gulped some air and went on. "The Coast Guard is bringing him herre right away." She took another breath. "The ship is about two hours out. Dr. Gold said to get ready for immediate surgery." "Surgery!' My throat closed up. "Yes, and no time to lose. He said we'd need boiled shets and rags, all the bandage aterial wew can find, and plenty of Coleman lanterns.' We had only two fifteen-watt lightbulbs in our house, and they didn't give much light. While Miss Parker was stillo talking, everyone went into action. That didn't surprise m3e. What did was seeing Sylvia South rush out with the others and return soon with an armload of crisp sheets. Peter relaxed after Miss Parker gave him some morphine. In fact, he lay limp as a landed fish. His eyes were blazed and dull and his skin looked whiter than Sylvia's. I talked in a soft voice, trying to soothe him while I kept my ears tuned for the sound of a boat horn. Finally, I heard it. Nellie die, too. She jumped and and rushed out. Minutes later, she returned. 'it's the Aurora," she announced in a mournful voice. There was no celebrating the mail boat this day when time was squeezing us like a vise. Peter started to groan again. I don't know how long I sat by his side before I heard another ship's horn. The Old Man hobbled in. "Doctor's here," he said. In moments, Dr. Gold and his first mate came in. The first mate had a bulky build and a ruddy complexion, but Dr. Gold's skin was the color of a gull and he was as thin as a pipe cleaner. He looked likeh e was the one in need of care. He shooed everyone form Peter's room except his first mate, Anesia, and me. Then he opened his bag and took out two long, sharp knives. I felt faint and started to leave. "Stay, I may need you," Dr. Gold said. I nodded, but I was afraid I'd pass out. I calleed on Mama's spirit. Then I straightened my shoulders and slipped on the rubber gloves and face mask Dr. Gold handed me. Heheld an evil-smelling towel over Peter's mouth until Peter started to breathe deeply. He painted Peter's belly with some red liquid and then cut into him like he was butchering a seal. I bit hard into my lip, feeling the pain of that knife in myself. Dr. Gold kep barking instructions to the first mate. "Sharp knife, forcepts, small scissors." His voice rose a pitch. "Cotton cloth, there's a lot of blood." My ankles turned to mush. I fell down to my knees. Again I reached for Mama's spirt. I couldn't find it. Evdokie came into the room. As president of the church sisterhood, she was used to taking charge o things. "I'll take your place." I gave her my rubber gloves and mask and went into the other room. Innokenty was shaking so hard his teth clacked. Nellie's sister, Anna, was sitting quietly byhis side. Nellie was passing bread and dried fish around. Sylvia was trying to read to the children, but they were too upset to hear. She must have noticed, for she stopped reading and suggested they play a game. Paulie brought over two bone rings with sticks attached. He and Alicia showed her how to play qamtidax. Paulie threw the ring and stick in the air in a way to make the ring fall onto the stick. He missed. Then it was Alicia's turn. She caught the ring on her stick. But she showed no interest in taking her prize--tweaking his ear. The children weren't able to fix their interest on games or anything else for that matter. Neither could I. So many demons were chasing around in my brain I decided to lie down on Alicia's sleeping mat in the corner of the kitchen. Maybe then I could clear my head. I felt the hot angry breath of my ancestors on my neck. It was an omen. Peter was going to die. He wouldn't live to see Anton ordained as a priest of our church. He was cursed, the curse our marriage brought, the curse that killed Mama. After twenty years you'd think the memory of that flu epidemic would have vanished, but it was as real as yesterday's walk on the beach. Near the end of the epidemic, Akusha had become a ghost town. The school and store were closed. No one even went to church. I remember how forlorn I felt one day walking down an empty, silent path. A strong north wind blew debris across yards and pathways. A high tide flooded the beach, right up to Evdokie's backyard fence. No gulls called. No ravens swooped by in the wind. The sky was as empty as the streets. Then Mama's sister Sophie came out and walked in the direction of Leonty's house. Moments later, marie and Anesia joined her. Others followed after them. They heard the sounds of Leonty's hammer and saw, and knew another coffin was in the making. Our villagers formed a silent vigil, gathering together in a mute and gloomy shuffle to learn the name of the latest victim. Mama was the last. I still shudder to think of her suffering. Fever, chills, headache, pain stabbing her eyeballs, and muscle aches all over her body. At the end, she coudlnt' breathe and blood dripped from the corner of her lips. Aunt Sophie, Alexi, Nicky, and I were by her side when she died. It was so sudden. Her moiuth fell open and her jaw locked. Nicky cried out, "Mama, Mama, Mama." I had put my arms around him, and sucking in my breath so I wouldn't sob, I had said, "She's gone. It's over, it's over." I hadn't realized I spoke those words out loud. "Yes, it's over,' Dr. Gold said, standing beside me. His shoulders sagged and his hand trembled. "Peter? Is he---" "He would have been dead in another hour if we hadn't hadn't operated. It took a few minutes for his words to sink in. 'Is he all right?" "Looks good. His breathing is regular and his pulse is nearly normal. I'll check on him every few ours until the ship leaves tomorrow. I think he'll be fine." Nellie laughed with relief. The color came back to Innokenty's face. Alicia and Paulie started to bicker over some bone rings. The crisis was over. I should feel joy. I did. But there was also a heaviness in my chest, someting nagging at me. What was it? I wanted Anesia,not outsiders to heal Peter. She was a star healer before promyshlennik brought their diseases to our country. Yet, I told myself, whites didn't bring busted appendix to our islands. We had them long before. Maybe our healers hjad no cure. Thank the Lord Dr. Gold knew what to do. Still, I had two hearts about Peter's saviors.
Chapter Four. Peter was recovering. At first he ate like a sparrow and slept like he was hibernating, but today, a month later, he gobbled half a platterof alaadix before going to church to teach Russian class.
It was Saturday, the morning of my weaving class. I have five students--Nadia, Alicia, Nellie's daughter Agnes, her niece, Lupia, and Evdokie's oldest child, Akinia. In the warm months we hiked to the hills and I showed them where to find rye grass, the best grass for weaving. then I taught them how to collect, dry, sort, and cure the grass. Now, in the cold months, we sat around the table, pulled close to the stove, and they watched me braid the strands into mats, baskets, and other containers.
"What are you making?" Agnes asked as I started to weave. "A basket," I replied. It was for Sylvia South--my way of thanking her for helping Peter.
The girls fastened their eyes on me as I wet my fingers and rubbed water along the blades of grass to make them flexible. Then, using my long, pointed thumbnail, grown long on purpose, I parted the grass, the inner strands for warp and the tough, outer ones for weft. After that, I wove the warp strands together for the bottom of the basket.
Good thing it was time to end the class because Nellie blew in waving a lettter. I had heard the Aurora come in earlier. Nellie and I picked up each other's mail, whoever got to the school first. Teachers run the post office, too.
"Anything from Mavra?" Agnes asked.
Nellie shook her head and handed me the letter--it was from Anton. She then went over to the stove and filled a pot with water for chai. The girls took this as a signal for dismissal. They had planned to take a steam bath after class, anyhow, and out they dashed.
Nellie served chai and sat down across from me waiting to hear Anton's news. His letters were like diaries. Knowing the mail boat comes only once
a month, he wrote them over many days.
I held the letter in my hand without opening it. I wasn't sure what I wanted to read. if he wrote that he loved the school and did well, Peter would smile. but if he said he hated it and wanted to come home, I might smile. I was split apart in my feelings about Anton's schooling. I opened the envelope and read the letter to Nellie.
"November 27. Sunday afternoon. I have a story to tell. Remember the adventure books I read in fourth grade about Columbus and La Salle exploring strange seas and lands? I used to dream about being an explorer, too. Well, I had my chance last Saturday. I don't think I'm made for that occupation. For the first time, Mr. Steele gave us passes to go into Salem, me and four other students. We were excited and I didn't know where to go first. It was so big, a hundred Akushas could fit into that one city. Would you believe it has eight moving picture theaters and restaurants serving food from different countries? I pictured eating in all those restaurants. It would be like traveling the world. There were separate stores for everything--shoes, hats, toys, tools, even eggs."
Nellie's mouth fell open. "A separate store for eggs!"
I couldn't picture it either. I got up and heated more water.
"Go on," Nellie said.
I refilled our cups and then continued reading.
"But all of that was nothing compared to the music store. I thought I was in heaven--every instrument I knew of and some I didn't. And sheet music and records and Victrolas and radios. And they let you play records in little booth for free. The other guys weren't interested in the music store. They went off. But I couldn't leave there. I forgot about being an explorer. I forgot about my friends. I forgot about everything except that magic store. I listed to a recording of Mama Carter singing gospels, and Hungarian dances, and a beautiful violin piece played by someone named Milstein. There's more to tell but I'm tired now."
November 28. Monday evening. I lost track of time in that music store until an explosion blew me off the ground. It was the loudest roar I've ever heard. We don't have that sound in the Aleutians. It's thunder--clouds crashing into each other. I guess our Aleutian clouds are more polite. Ha ha. The thunder was followed by a blizzard, great sheets of rain soaking everything. I decided to find my friends from the school. I ran from shop to shop and restaurant to restaurant. I even got permission to search the movie houses. They were nowhere. It was getting dark and everything began to close p. I thought I new where the bus to our school stopped, but I couldn't find the place. I asked people on the street, 'Where's the bus to Indian school?' They didn't answer me. They were rushing to get out of the rain. I ducked into a restaurant and asked people there, but no one knew. I bought a cup of coffee and a sweet roll, and before I finished, the manager started turning off the lights. I looked for other stores that were open but everything was dark except for the street lights. I was one scare explorer. The rain soaked my clothes, my hair, my skin. Chrissakes, I thought I'd freeze to death. I ran to the back of a store where there was an eave that sheltered the doorway. I rolled myself into a ball and huddled in that doorway, but still the wet and cold soaked into me. I had to get up every few minutes and jump around to warm myself. I did that most of the night. Then I was too cold to get up anymore. I just lay there, numb in my body and brain, too, numb to even care if I died."
I took deep breaths before reading on.
"I think I would have died if a law man hadn't found me at first light. 'What's your name?' he asked me. I couldn't think of it. I couldn't think of my own damn name. When I didn't answer, the law man asked, 'You a student at the Indian school?' I said, 'yes.' And he drove me tack to the school."
"My roommate, Tiasook, an Eskimo from up north, just came in with three other students and a deck of cards. I'm learning plenty of card games in this place. To be continued.
November 29. Tuesday afternoon. Mr. Steele met me at the door to the dormitory this morning. his face was as red as fire. He turned his voice to top volume. 'It will be a cold day in hell before you'll get another pass.' I can't remember all he said, but he kept screaming. At first I was scared. Then I figures, what the hell, I don't care if he sends me home. As a matter of fact, I hoped he'd say those words. But he didn't Suddenly, he gave me a hard look and left the dorm.
"The rest of that day and that night, too, I kept thinking about home. Now comes the bad news. Tiasook told me he heard that the school ran out of money. There wasn't any left to send us home for the summer. I said he must be mistaken because Mr. Steele promised to send us home every summer and possibly every Christmas, too. Toaook wasn't mistaken. I don't want to stay in this place any longer. I don't thinkI can stand it. I don't know what I'll do if I can't come home."
My hand was shaking. I put the letter down. I was afraid. I thought about Constantine Churginoff's suicide after three years at the Indian school without a single visit to his home in Azian bay. The school never told anyone the reason he died. But AzianBay people knew. His mama explained the death to me once. "Henever saw his people, his country for three years. It killed his spirit."
"Anton's spirit is fading," Nell," I said.
She poured more chai. And we sat together without words until the dusky sky turned black.
CHAPTER SIX: Storms come every day now. Today, a mighty gale howled and whisled around our house and drove snow into giant drifts. Nicky and Paulie spent the morning clearing a path to the house. When their fingers became stiff they'd come in, drop their sealskin boots and fox skin parkas by the door, and warm themselves by the stove. Then out again to shovel. With a cold wind flapping against the house, I'd hoped they'd say inside after finishing the job, but after another brief warming, they set out to check their trap lines. Those two are a team. Where Nicky goes, Paulie follows. Nicky is like paulie's papa even when Peter is home. Like Peter, Nicky doesn't train paulie for the sea. he hates the sea. He teaches him tolive off the land, instead.
Late in the afternoon, the door suddenly blew open and Nicky and Paulie blew in, their arms loaded with ptarmigan.
Alicia,Nadia, and I went right to work, clearing the counter and cutting up the birds and some lily bulbs for stew. A feast, I thought. It deserves candles. I was just lighting them when the door opened again and Little Huncvh came in, bearing a gift for Paulie--a box filled with flattened stones for his sling. He uses his sling to hunt small birds.
Soon after, the Old Man arrived, his beloved chess set under his arm. He laid the set on one end of the table, seated himself on the bench in ront of it, then took a slab of tobacco from his pocket, cut off a wedge, and stuffed it into the side of his mouith.
"Ang, Mr. Herendin," Little Hunch greeted her nearest neibhro as if she hadn't seen him for a yer.'The Old Man arched his brows and shifted histobacco to the other cheek.
"A feast tonight, Mr. Herendin," Little Hunch said.
"About time. I'm hungry enough to eat a two-by-four."
There was plenty to eat when you brought in a qawax for my thirty-first name day. The whole town celebrated."
Thecorners of his lips twitched in a small smile, maybe remembering that time when he was the best sea hunter in the village. But his smile died when he stared down at his knotted, cooked hands. paulie went over to stand beside him. "Plenty of space over there by the counter," the old man crabbed.
Paullie didn't move away; instead he hung upside down on a ladder-back chair, his hands wrapped around the base of the legs and his feet curled over the top rung. the Old Man drewinhisbreath trying to stifle a laugh, but it came out in a snort through his nose.
Nicky sat down across from the Old Man and moved a pawn. Paulie turned right side up to watch thegame. I watched, too, out of the corner of my ee. TheOld Man's antics tickled me. His head was lopsided so he hadto look sideways at the chess board or sit at an angle from it. After every move, his eyebrows arched and he spit snuff into a tin can. I wasn't sure if that meanshe was glador mad at the turn the game was taking.
We ate in silence, but as soon as we finished, OPaulie asked the Old Man for a story about his chess.
"That story has grown a beard, " the Old Man chuckled.
We waited, knowing he'd tell it again.
"A long time ago, a Russian hunter, Vladimir, brought a chess game to Akusha. No one here ever saw one before. We watched him and another huntr play. Their games sometimes lasted the night. After keeping my eyes on many games, I finally figured out why they sat so long without movin a piece. Then I played with Vladimir. Others studied us until they learned. We hunters liked that game. Then one night at a town meeting with the Russian bosses, Vladimir put his ches set in my hands and said to the whole gang tere, "That's Afenogin'sprize for being the best sea otter hunter in...'"
He stopped talking when Aunt Sophie and her husband, Bullshit John, showedup. John got that name from spinning yarns people didn't believe.
"There's news," he said before he even sat down. "A
federal man showed up on the mail boat yesterday. He moved right into Elena Sistinkof's house. Right across from the church. And today he put bars across the door to the bedroom of that house. He's making a jail cell."
"Bullshit," the Old Man grumbled.
John ignored him, and plunked down on a box by the tove. "Innokenty and I were walking to the church this afternoon when we passed this tall, fat promyshlennik with an unlit cigar hanging from his mouth. We stopped and watched him drag a door made of steel bars up the stops. After a while, the marshal laid the door down on the porlch, and came over to us. 'I'm Horace Gump, the marshal.' He took the cigar out of his mouth and snickered while he talked, but I didn't know what was funny.
"I told him my name andInnokenty did the same. 'I'm innokenty Pushkin, first chief.' The marshal cleared histhroat a few times and then, looking at Innokenty, said, 'I don't want tointerfere with our busines.' Innokenty nodded, puffed hard on his pipe, and said, "First time the government sent a marshal here.' The muscles in Horace Gump's temples got tight, like he was mad. But, still smirking, he ansered,'YHou need someone to take cafre of things too big for the village to handle.' Innokenty and I stared at him, waiting for an explanation. None came. 'First time I ever heard of anything too big for us to handle,' Innokenty said. 'Things like murder and madness,' the marshal said. Innokenty was thinking and after a while he said, ' My granfather tole me about a murder here once The community got together and sent that killer to another island.' The marshal looked puzzled, shrugged, then returned to the porch to drag the barred door into Elena's house."
The blood rushed to John's face. He stopped talking as suddenly as he's started.
"Someone should go to that marshal and tell him the chief and elders are the law here," I said.
"Ah, Tatt, maybe we haveto settle ourselves about the marshal," Aunt Sophie said. "Just like we do with the teachers and storekeeper. Sometimes we want them to leave and sometimes they help us."
"But the teachers try to stop our language andnow a marshal's here to stop our government. We should think of someting to do."
Alicia was sitting on the ege of her seat like she does when she's tense. "Mama, what should we do?"
I searched my mind for an answer. I thought of my mama's teachings. "Your grandmother taught me, don't sit still when something's wrong."
"And you taught me it's wrong to fight."
"Doing doesn't have to mean fighting."
"What did my grandmother do?"
"She ran away from Umaka when she decided it was wrong to live with my papa."
"Why did she have to run away from Umaka? Whycouldn't she just move to another house?"
"That would have set off fights, maybe explosions in the village. he council would have asked one or the other to leave. Mama left before anyone asked her to."
Alicias face puckered into a frown. I waited for her to say what she was thinking. After a few minutes, she did. "Mama I don't want you to run away from papa."
I laughed. "Alicia, your papa is agreeable. Mine was mean. He didn't help Mama; he didn'help in the village. He was gone most of the eur huting sea otters on the Sammy Jay."
"But didn't all the menhun sea otters in those days?" she asked.
"Before I was born, they did. But then there were plenty of sea otters near our island. hunting trips lasted only a few months. Plenty of time left for men to do their other work. After the sea otters disappeared from around there, hunting trips lasted most of the year. Our men stopped hunting them. Except my papa. mama complained. She wanted him home to help with the church and community and fishing and training Alexi."
The Old Man spit a wad of tobacco into the tin can. "Your papa had a passiion for his work."
"And Mama had a passion for the community," I answered, and then continued my story.
"They spokeharsh wordswhen Papa was getting ready togo sea otter hunting again. That wasright after my twelfth name day. our barabara had only one room, so I heard everything. Mama usualy spoke in a soft voice, but she made a loud command to Papa. 'I say, don't go, don't go.'
zPapa kept telling her to go to sleep. Mama'svoice got louder. 'Hunt around here like the others. Alexi need ou here to train him. You don't have to hunt seaotters anymore.' 'Stop talking and go to sleep,' Papa snappled. Mama'swords came fast. 'If you go, I go, if yoiu go, I go.' Papa jumped up, grabbed his gear, and ran out the door. He slept in the shed that night and left early the next morning without saying goodbye to antyone.
Alicia's eyes grew wide. "Not even to your mama?"
"Not even to Mama. She was restless after Papa left, fluttering around the house like a bird hunting sand fleas. She didn't stop even when Gregory from Islik visited. Gregory was like mama's aacha. He lived nextdoor to her when they were children. And after he moved to Islik he kept visiting her, may be a copule times a year. Gregory's aunt, Ekaterina, lived next door to us. This night she came over and told us a legen e'd never heard before.
"'Tis is a story about a girl who lived a long time ago,' she began. 'Her name was varvara. She wasyoung, fourteen, and had bright red cheeks and long black braids. Varvara was married to three brothers. She worked so hard many nights she didn't have time to sleep. After awhile she got tired of it. She walked off and hid in the hills. But one husbandfound her and brought her home. Time passed and she walked off again, this time to acave high in the mountains. A second husband found her and brought her back. The third time she walked off many miles to the other side of the island. There were no people there. Varvara dug a barabara to live in. Shecaught fish in her hands. She ate the flesh of deadseals that rolled up on the beach. Noone found her. She lived there always, in her own private village.'
"Mama told me she felt calm after Ekaterina's story, like something settled down on her insides. That's when she decided to follow Vrvara's example and walk off from Umaka. She moved her chair close to Gregory's and the two of them talked in whispers. Then Gregory got ujp and left and Mama started running around doing strange things. First she pulled clothes out of storage boxes--boots,socks, parkas, kamleikas, sweaters. Then she started opening cupboards and taking out all the dried and salted fish and Pilot crackers. My tomach flip-flopped--I knewsomething unusual was happening. Gregory returned, carrying emnpty boxes for packing. 'The boat is readto laod,' he said. My heart started to jump around like someone was kicking it. 'Boat, what boat? Where are we going?'"
Alicia's eyes grew dark with fear. "Were ou going to look for your papa?"
"That's what I thought until Mama spoke. 'We're going to Islik with Gregory,' she said. 'And then maybe on from there. We'll be gone a long tim.' I got dizzy thinking about Katya. She was at fish camp on the other side of the island. All my lifewe saweachother every day. She ate meals at our house. We slept in the same bed many nights. We confided every thought. What would she think when she found usgone? When would I see her? Would we be together for our thrteenth name day? Suddenly I had an rge to hold my spirit doll, the one my godmother, Matrona, made for my twelfth name day. I had left thedoll at Matrona's house. I started for the door.
"'Where are you going?' Mama asked. 'To get my doll.' 'There's no time, Tatty. Alexi and Gregory are loading the boat. Get Nicky and Sergie dressed.' An hour later we were sailing awy to Islik in Gregory's powerboat. I'll never forget the sight of the moonlit houses of Umaka and Matrona's and Ekaterina's tiny figures on the beach, growing smaller and smalelr until they disappeared."
Alicia was about to say something when I finished the story, but the Old Man didn't give her a chance. "Ha, whoever heard of packing a gang of children in a smal boat 800miles across the Aleutian Islands because you didn't like our husband. maybe your mama got mixed up and thought you were a flock of geese."
Aunt Sophie's shoulders shook with laughter at the Old Man's remark.
"But Mamja," Alicia siad, "We can't run away from
Akusha just because the marshal came here."
"We don't have to run away, but we don't have to sit stil either."
Alicia still looked puzzled. maybe later she'd figure it out.
CHAPTER SEVEN. One day in late December, the sky suddenly cleared andI went toRocky Point to fish. I caught five sculpin and rushed home to prepare them for lunch. The coals in the stove were glowing kand two fish were sizzling in the pan when the children came in. paulie ran overto the stoveand looked in the pan. "Fresh fish," he called out to Alicia who was standing near the door. She didn't respond. "Sculpin," he said, tring to get her attention. Still, she didn't say anything. She didn't move either, but stood frozen at the door with her jackert on like she didn't live here. I hadnever een my lively daughter act that way before.
"Want some chai?" I asked her. No answer. I walkedover and brushed her hair from her eyes with my hand. It fell there, just like Peter's. "Talk to me, littledaughter."
"Can't," she repeated. And then she botled into the other room and fell on top of my bed.
I picked up my weaving, waiting for her tocomeout and tell me something.
I waited a long time. the light of theday dimmed. I called Aliciato the table for some crackers and fish. She came in and ate, and didn't eat, and kept her eyes fixed on something over my head, though when Ilooked around,I didn'tseeanything. When she finished eating she went back to the bedroom. A sudden chill raced down my spine.
I decided to visit Nellie. maybe she knew something. Her daughter, Agnes, was in Alicia's class. I hurried over there. Nellie and her sister, Anna, were splitting sea lion sineww into fine threads for making fish line. Anna was five years younger than Nellie, but she looked older; her hair was streaked with gray and she had worry lines around her eyes and moiuth. Nellie got up, motioned me to a chair, and brought me a cup of chai. I noticed she kept peering into my eyes, so I told her about Alicia's strange behavior.
Nellie and Anna exchanged a qujick glance. Then Nellie said, "She didn't tell you what Miss Parker did?'
"She didn't say one word."
Nellie's face colored. "Oh, Lord in heaven," she said, rocking her bodty back and forlth in her straight back chair.
My pulse started to throb. "Did Miss parker cut out Alicia's tongue?"
"Agnes said Miss parker putr soap in Alicia's mouth, yes, soap in her mouth."
"Put soap in her mouth?"
"Shekept washing Alicia's mouth in it even when it ran down her throat and gagged her."
My breath caught in my throat.
"Agnes said Miss Parker shouted at the children.'And it will be soap in the mouth every time anyone talks Aleut in this scool.' And then Miss Parker got real calm. She explained to the children' It's the fault of your parents you can't talk English right. It's because your parents talk Aleut at home. I want yhou all to stop speaking Aleut in our homes so you can learn English."
This wasn't the first time childen were punished for speaking their tongue at school. Once when I went to American school, my teacher made me sit in the icy school corridor all day during the coldest part of winter for speaking Aleut. but putting soap in a child's mouth? It's an evil spirit who thinksup such an act.
Nellie was talking again. "Lordy, they brought in motorboats and now no more baidarkas. They built frame houses and now no more barabaras. They bring in the English language and soon, there'll be no more Aleut tongue."
Nellie spoke my fears. My mood grerw dar,
Anna's face looked more pinched and worried than usual. "Terrible, terrible," she repeated. then, looking at her sister, she asked in a high-pitched voice, "What can we do?"
Evdokie wasa president of the sisterhood. We were used to following her wisdom. She lived only a few houses away from Nelli. Wewere there in a few minutes.
Everything in Evdokie's house is brown. Sometimes E
vdokie blinks her eyes at my weaving when I use bright red and yellow dyes. She says brown is a calm color. Evdokie is call, too. she hates feeling excited. And here we were bringing news that would surely make her pulse jump.
"Have you seen Simon or Akinia this afternoon?" I asked her.
Evdokie has three children. Two of them, Simon and Akinia, are in Allicia's class.
"No. They're next door watching Papa repair their sled," she replied. And then her eyes questioned mine. May be she saw the red flush creeping jpu from my neck to my cheeks. So I told herwhat Miss Parker did in school.
"I don't want her to do that again," I said.
Evdsokie sat qujietly for many minuts, then said, "We should talk it over with Innokenty and the elders."
Nellie and I nodded, but Anna gave us news that changed my mind. "Innokenty and Ruff are at Unakeet checking their trap lines. They left this morning, so they won't be back for awhile."
"We'll wait for them," Evdokie said.
"I'm thinking about Miss parker hurting other children while we're waiting," I said.
"We have to wait," Evdokieinsisted. "The chief and eldersknow the laws of our ancestors."
My voice rose. "Did our ancestors know about promyshlennik teachers? Did they know aobut talking in two tongues?"
"The chief and council are the suggestors about everything," Evdokie replied.
Nellie and Anna didn't say anything. I thought hard about Evdokie's opinion. It didn't feel good to wait. I thought of Mama, of what she'd suggest. She'd say we would should take care of the problem ourselves. mama is right. I passed her advice on to the others.
Nellie agreed. "We don't have to turn to the elders for everything. We're sisterhood regulars."
Evdokie tightened her lips and the veinsn the sideof her foreheadstood out. Before she could oppose lme, I said, "Wecan talk to the council later. First, we women will go to the school."
"Go to the school?" Anna and Evdokie asked at the same moment.
"We'll go to the school," I repeated. "We'll go tomorrow and tomorrow and the next tomorrow. Then we'll see."
"To talk to Missparker?" Evdokie asked.
"Not to talk. Tosit. In the seats at the back of Miss Parker's room."
Anna's skin paled. "She'll get mad at us."
We all nodded.
"But...but...if she'smad she might not tend the sick. She's in charge ofall the medicines."
I shivered with the same fear. If wehadsatin at the school before Peter got sick, would Miss Parker have helped him? I didn't want to fight with her. Maybe Evdokie was right. We should consult the council. Bt their deliberations sometimes lasted for days. Cold a minute befofre, my hands started to sweat as thoughts of Katya crowded my mind. I shouldn't have waited when she converted. I shouldn't have waited when she told me she was going to marry Buddy Thomas. I should have done something to stop her. The answer was clear. We had tostop Miss Parker from hurting our children.
:Promyshlennik are in charge of the radio communication and the store and cash jobs, too," I reminded Anna.
"So better not fight with them," Anna said.
"Sitting quiet isn't fighting," I answered.
Nellie broke into a laugh that rumbled up from somewhere deep in her belly. "I like that--war without words."
Evdokie nodded. Anna sighed but went along with the decision.
Standing next to a dark, chipped, hardwood desk,her hands holding onto its edge, Miss Parker looked started the next morning when she saw the four of us squeeze into empty desk chairs at the back of the room. I was just as surprised several minutes later when Sylvia South walked into the school room and took the seat next to mine. It was the first time a promyshlennik ever joined our proetest, except Father Paul, of course. I wondered how she knew about our plan. Then I figured it out. Nellie had told her.
Miss Parker fixed her eyes on me. "Can I help you Tatiana?"
I felt friendly toward this woman who saved Peter's life. But alsoconfused. She was the samewoman whoinjured Alicia. I shook my head slowly.
Miss Parker asked the samequestion of the other women, inclujding Sylvia. All responded the same. Miss Parker frowned and pulled her bushy brows into the shape of aV. Turning to the children, she asked, "Is it some kind of a holiday that brings your mothers to the school?" The childfren didn't answer. they didn't know why we were there.
Miss Parker glared at the children for a few minutes. Then, throwing her shoulders back, she walkedto the slate to start a lesson. When she talked, thouogh, her voice cracked. She did lessons all that day while we wmen sat there.
The next day Anesia and marie, the healers, joined us at the school. There were no empty seats, so they sat cross-legged on the floor behind us. Miss Parker did her lessons, but every few seconds she glanced in our direction. On the third day three more women came, older women--Little Hunch, Aunt Sophie, and Evdokie's mama, parascovia. They sat on the floor with Marie andAnesia.
In the middle of the morning, something happened. Alicia wasn't afraid anymore. She turned around to face me. "Aang anax,"she said.
"Aang asxinux," I replied.
I thought Miss Parker was going to have a fit like a rabid dog. she turned her back to the room but her hands trembled and her earlobes turned bright red. A few minutes passed. Then she spun around and looked at us. Her voice shook a little. "We don't allow Aleut spoken in the school. It interferes with the childen's learning English."
I felt like shouting that aleut was the language of our homes, the language of my mama and her mama and her mama before. But I decided to let our silence speak.
Miss parker didn't seem to know what to do next. She walked to the back of the room. Then she circled around to thefront. She folded her arms over her chest, and, speaking very slowly like we were deaf or maybe dumb, she said, "The children need to know English to have a better life. It's fine for husbands and wives to seak Aleut to each other. But if you speak Aleut to your children, they'll never learn English. They'll never have a better life."
I didn't say anything. Neither did the other women.
Miss Parker puylled her ujpper lip down over her front teeth and began tappin her fingers on the back o her chair. "Do you understand? she said. no one answered. But I think Miss Zparker saw our tight lips.
"Will you cooperate with the school in this?" she stammered.
Not one of us said anything.
On the fourth day, Miss Parker made a statement. "I spoke to Miss Coombs." She was the teacher in lower class."We talked it over. We decided ou can speak Aleut to your children in yur homes."
We left school together, we nine women, our arms linked, our steps light, almost like we were dancing. "Let's go to the creek for some trout," I proposed in Aleut.
Nellie wagged herfingerin my face. "Don't you want a better life? Better speak in English."
We all laughed except Sylvia who didn't understandour language. Using English I invited her to our fishing party.
"I don't have a fishing pole," she said
Nellie laughed. "We fish with our hands."
"But..."Sylvia sputtered. And then I guess she decided to close her mouth.
We followed Icy Creek as i woundits way from the beach up intothe hills behind the scoool. The sun had just scatttered the clouds, and shadows played in and out of the creases in the mouintains. A great calm washed over me.
Nellie caught the first trout. She pulled a knife from her pocket and started to clean it. We always carry knives in case we find fish. Soon five mofre trout lay filleted on the creek bank, enough for all. But Sylvia didn't take any. We kept munching anyway.
After a while Sylvia mymbled, "I don't eat raw fish." Red spots broke out on her neck like they did when Ralph upset her. I went overand stood close to her. I wantedhertoknowitwasn'timportant to eat the fish. She must have felt better. She strted to talk. "I have some news. Guess what Ralph gave me for my fortieth birthday? A Steinway upright. It arrived yesterday on the Elsie L. I've played piano since I wasfive eyars old. It's the one thing I missed most living here." She paused, gulped some air, and went on. "Tell me what you think of my idea. I thought I'd give piano lessons. I wouldn't charge. I know mosst of you are poor. Do yiou think people here would be interested?"
There are so many things Sylvia doesn't notice. "I'm thinking about where they'd practice," I said. "There hasn't been a piano in Akusha since the Baptist missioinaries loeft ten years ago."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Sylvia said, the flush returning to her neck. She left a fe minutes later. Anfesia started to chant an Aleut song and the rest of us joined in.
CHAPTER EIGHT.Early January. A Big storm. Waves crashed on the shore and high winds pelted our windows and whistled through cracks around the door frames. But foul weather didn't blunt our excitement as we prepared for our ten-day Christmas celebration.
"Starring" marks the beginning. For three nights weparade around town singing and waving bright stars of our own making. There are eight star bearers, each with a hand-picked group of carolers. I singwith the sisterhoodwomen; we've been rehearsing for a week. After every rehearsal, I hurried home to work on masks and costumes for the nights of masquerading that followed starring.
On this last day of preparations, coal burning hot in the stove, we all sat around the table putting finishing touches on our stars and masks. Gavril, Nellie's son, was helping Peter cut the deacon's star. He'd been living at our house for many days. That's the custom in our country. Childfren shift around to different houses. The village is their family.
Peter and Gavril were making a six-point star with a small cup on each end to hold candles. When Peter lights the candles and spins the star it looks like a flamingpinwheel. Gavril was pushing the candles hard into the cups, but they kept falling out. He looked at Peter for direction.
"The wax is too cool. Put it back on the stove," Peter said.
Gavril followed his suggestin, and aftr a while tested the heat of the wax with his finger. He howled. Peter tried to keep a straight face as he handed dhim a stick to use in plce ofhis finger.
Alicia and I were working on the sisterhood star, shaped like a kite. She was painting a picture of the Virgin in the center of the star and white anemone blossoms around the edges. Alicia was an artist from birth. Before she could walk, she'd sit for hours watching Peter draw catoons for our village newspaper and Nicky carve from wood and bone. And now a smile ceeps across her face when she draws.
The first day of starring, a light fluffy snow, klke a curtain of gauze, fell on the carolers. Each grop started at a diffrent point. We laced our way along the paths, waving our stars, singing, and passing out gifts. Alicia paraded with the adults for the first time She walked beside me in the sisterhood roup. I watched to see if she was tiring, but she didn't flag for a second, her rich voice ringing louder as we went from house to house.
On the last night of starring, we caroled at Sylvia's house. She came out as soon as she heard us, beaming a smile and swaying o the rhythm of our singing. After we finished, I handed he a gift of Christmas bread, frewssh baked that day. Sylvia's emotions show easily. Her eyes misted over as she grabbed my hand and squeezed it.
On the fourth day, the masquerading started The masks scared some of the hilden, but Alicia showed no fear until we reached the Old Man's house. Then, she stood as still as if she was nailed to the ground. The Old Man's door opened a crack and a long pole with a crab-like claw shot out toward us. Everyhone laughed except Alicia; she backed away from the house, but her eyes stayed fixed on that claw until the Old Man finally yanked it inside.
On the final night of masqueradign, we celebrated with a great feast at the community hall. It lasted nearly all night. As a finalle, we dunked in the sea--our way of gettring rid of evil spirits hiding in our costumes. Alicia jumped in first. "Eek, eek, it's freezing!" she shrieked as she ran out of the water Other went into the water after Alicia. All except Nadia. She joined Aunt Sophie, Parascovia, and Little Hunch at the steam bah where the older women cleansed themselves.
I slept most of the net day. Then it was time for another high moments--our New Years Eve dance. Nearly everyone in town, including the promyshlennik came to the celebration. Wearing brightly colored calico and gingham skirts and shirts, women reeled around in large circles, doing Russian fold dances that Father Paul's wife taught us the years she spent in Akusha. When they finished, people imitated the style of ballroom dancing--two peoplle, any combinationb, hugging and slowly movig their fee. Alicia was my partner. She wasn't a star at dancing. She kept stumbling over her feet and finally her foot caught mine and we both landed on the floor, laughing until tears came. "Enough dancing," I said. "Let's help serve the food.
We carried bowls of puunch and platters of bread, smoked fish, and frjit from cans to the tables. Peter reached out and grabbed my arm when I passed him. "Come sit with me Little Wren. We're planning the hymns we'll sing at midnight mass."
"I'll be back when I finish serving." Then, as an aftrthought I went over and brushed a strand of hair away from his eye.
Alicia and I were filling punch glasses at a table in the rear of the room when we overheard a conversation at the nxt table. It was betweren james Wilson, boss at the supply station, and Horace Gump, the marshal. Horace's face was big and flesjy but James's looked like a skulkl, the skin as taut as hide on a drum.
"They're full of fun, aren't they?" the marshal said.
"They like a good time, tat's for sure. YOu know they're a talented bunch. Who'd ever expect to find so many artists and musicians in a hole like this?" He paused. "But hard as I try, I just can't understand them."
"What do you mean?" Horace asked.
"They don't care a fig about the future. They don't plan ahead for anything. Take that young man Alexi, over there in the cornere. He unloads supplies for me sometimes. A year ago last fall he brought in a 1,500 pound seal lion. Think of that--more meat than all the cans in the NS store. But then I found out that his famiy had no meat at all that winter. He didn't save any for the cold months."
"You don't say. What did he do with it?" the marshal said, clucking his tongue against the roof of his mouth.