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KATHERINE McNAMARA

 

What follows took place in the Interior of Alaska, in Athabaskan country, in the late 1970s. McGrath exists by that name; the Kuskokwim and Yukon and Stony Rivers are real; but I have disguised the names of the Dena’ina (Athabaskan) villages, calling them ‘Hungry’ and ‘Village Below’, to respect the privacy left to their people. ’Mary’ and ’Tom Charles’ and their children, ‘Efrem,’ ‘Fyodor,’ their sisters: all were as I’ve described them, but these are not their real names. The narrator, who is myself as I was then, was an itinerant poet who lived in Alaska for a number of years and, with the help of many people and a gift of luck, or grace, learned a way to see the country.

    From Hungry Village, Mary and Tom Charles sent me two fat red salmon, packed in bundles of the tall grass the grew on the river banks. In late summer people scythed the grass and used it to absorb fish blood. After breakup, after the last snow had gone, they burned off the straw; within a day of the first rain, green shoots were poking through the stubble. The grass grew broad-leafed and tough. In August, by the time the reds came that far up the Stony, the men cut the high summer growth and laid it down on the beach under the tables where the families cut fish.
    I was away from home the day the gift arrived. The pilot left it with my neighbor, who stored the unopened box on her porch in a refrigerator that stopped working. I got back a week later; the fish were already stinking. I gave them to Mick Hannigan, who fed them to his dogs.
    It was too bad about the fish; I liked them, and red salmon didn’t spawn in the Kuskokwim. There was an empty seat on a chartered plane going to Hungry, I heard; and I could have it. It was the last week in August: the days were warm; the nights were cool enough for a parka. I gathered up my parka and a sleeping bag and a small pack. The plane was waiting, its freight loaded; most of it was grocery orders from the McGrath store.
    For about an hour we flew south over the Kuskokwim Mountains and into the Stony River country, behind where the Alaska Range curved inland from the coast. The mountains were green with Alpine tundra, or thick with birch and alder. It was moose country, the pilot noted, though a few caribou also ranged in the higher areas.
    In Hungry lived a family of people I had come to know in the past year, the brothers Fyodor and Efrem and their sisters Alice and Emma. They were Dena’ina, and I had known their relatives in Village Below. A number of their grown children remained near them. The daughters had married white men, and the young families had built new homes across the river from the old settlement. Of all of them, I was closest to the Charleses. Tom taught school; Mary was Efrem’s daughter.
    And so, I came walking over the hill from the village and down the trail to the house where the seven Charleses lived. Nothing stirred but wood smoke drifting away into the trees. They had built the cabin into a steep bank on a small, swift creek, just upstream from where the creek joined the river: its new tin roof flashed in the sun. Directly below, at the edge of the water, stood the smokehouse; and off toward the trees a summer tent had been rigged up out of mosquito netting, where the children could laze about and read. Seven sled dogs lay by their houses at the edge of the woods. One of them rattled his chain and looked toward me, questioning, as I approached.
    The two youngest children were up on the roof of the smoke-house. They hallooed through the quiet woods! Mary appeared, smiling, at the door, and Tom waved from the river bank. I was in time for lunch.
    Afterward, Mary and I settled into comfortable chairs with our tea. Efrem, her father, had come to visit: he and Tom sat in the sun talking about a fly-wheel wood splitter Tom had seen at the Alaska State Fair. Tom Junior, with his dirty, impish face, was tootling away on a recorder and trying to catch my eye. Mary, to distract him, suggested he wash his face and hands. He stopped tootling and looked at her, innocence itself: “Why? Don’t you like dirt? What’s wrong with it?” Rebecca, who was about eight, came in and curled up under her mother’s arm.
    “She’s my grandma,” Mary said fondly. “When she was a little, little girl my grandma died. They had the forty days give-every-thing-away, you know, and my auntie was handing out everything. Rebecca stood up on a table and said, ’I’m Grandma! You stop giving all my things away and give some to me!’ My auntie just dropped everything, she was scared. That’s why she likes Rebecca so much.” Rebecca said, “I was just little then, I don’t remember.” A sweet, sly smile slipped around her mouth.

    The afternoon had declined to a hush. Mary was sewing, and the children, including the two oldest girls, finished their chores outdoors. Efrem had gone home.
    “He used to find moose when everyone was hungry and had no luck,” Tom said gently of his father-in-law. We were sitting on the front steps, watching the creek tumble by. “He could feed the whole village. Now he’s just about the only one who can’t make out a grocery order.”
    Tom was small and quick, and had kept his Down East accent, even after a dozen years in the bush. He had met Mary and her three young children when he worked in the cinnabar mine at Red Devil; they married not long afterward and had two more children. He was still confused at times by the deep and ancient relationships in her family. Outsiders could not help but be confused, he thought; everything was subtle, subtle.
    Chida and Chada had run the village until their very old age. Now they were gone, and things were falling apart. Fyodor, with his wrinkled face and cunning grin, was known for playing the fool in the white man’s world: he hustled up to the mail plane and introduced himself and asked all the young women from the school district to marry him, he needed a new wife. Visiting lobbyists and corporation men knew he was partial to whisky, and they had bought his support, or his vote, more than once.
    Efrem was a silent man, not given to public talk; but lately he and Fyodor had been arguing with one another, and their aging sisters took positions, further dividing them, or remained neutral. He stayed in a tiny cabin half-buried in the ground, living without a wife, as he had lived since Mary’s mother passed away, when Mary was very young. After Chida went, when Rebecca was little, he had begun to lose heart. A summer ago, two of his favorite nephews, who lived at the mouth of the Stony, drowned. He had put off making his annual visit to their family. His sadness would not go away.
    “We’re going to move,” Tom said after a while. “At the end of the month.” He named a village further north; he would be the only teacher there.
    Surprised, I asked why.
    “Family politics. It’s too much for us, and the older girls want to try something new.”
    Most of the young cousins, the schoolchildren, had asked to go along with them.
    “Everybody thinks we’re going to a better place,” Tom said. “They ask to come along: I say ‘Yes; you don’t have to give money or anything.’ This lets them think it over, then decide to stay. But they can always say, ‘I decided not to go.’ Keeps the local balance.”

    Mary’s grandparents, Chada and Chida, had brought her up. Her chida, who came from a Yukon tribe, had first taken her out to the woods. Whenever they had gone to pick berries, the old lady had instructed the little girl about birds and animals.
    “My grandma could understand them,” Mary said, as we sat together after dinner. “Especially camprobber. She taught me how to hear him.”
    “He spoke English?”
    “I’m not sure,” she said, considering. “I can’t explain it. Maybe owl, though, speaks any language.
    “Camprobber always announced visitors. He would land on a bush outside our door and tell his tale. I would say to Tom that someone was coming, and someone always came. He learned not to laugh when this happened.
    “When we lived downriver, near the mine, camprobber kept visiting, announcing. But no one came. I got worried that something was going to happen. One day I heard him again and I went upstairs to lie down. Then Tom came home and told me about that air crash.” The crash had happened in Village Below, a few years before I was there: Mary’s aunt and the aunt’s son-in-law were killed; the son-in-law, a white man, was the pilot. Just after takeoff, before the shocked eyes of the watching village, the plane had plunged into the ice. In memorium, the wreck had been left untouched; it stood, rusting, a scrap-heap monument, its nose buried in the snow.
    “I listened,” she said, “and just lay there for a long, long time. I didn’t speak, I just stared at the ceiling. The kids thought something was wrong with me.”
    Her grandfather had offered to teach her animal songs so she could call the animals and ask them favors. She had refused him.
    “I wasn’t a good enough person to have that power,” she said. “My dad was a good person, until lately. He drinks more than she should. He gets angry sometimes.
    “When I was young, my cousins always teased me, because I stayed with my grandma. Maybe they thought she liked me better than she liked them. My mama was gone, and I didn’t have anybody else. My dad worked hard; I didn’t complain. But then I got older, and I got angry. I snapped back at them, and complained about them. It’s better not to have the power of the animals when you feel like that.”
    “Be wary of power,” Tom had suggested. “It was bum how they used it here. Efrem threw away what he had of it, and he’s happier now. People are afraid, and that’s why Christianity looks good to them.”

    In the morning everyone rose in a leisurely way. Mary fried hotcakes and boiled whitefish for breakfast. The fish was for Efrem, who had come up from the village in his boat, and who preferred Native food. Tom had promised: “When you come, we’ll take you out for a boat ride.” After breakfast we set out: four adults and the youngest ones, Tom Junior and Rebecca, in a leaky aluminum boat, heading down the creek and up the river for The Gorge.
    Earlier in the summer, Sara, their teen-aged girl, had navigated the family boat through that difficult canyon (none of the village boys had done it yet, said Tom cheerfully); along the way she had dropped a moose at two hundred yards. Because the village always needed meat, he had taught her how to poach, on the theory that an underaged girl would not be prosecuted for taking a moose out of season.
    The summer had been rainy, the water high; but the rivers now were dropping fast. Berries were scarce everywhere. The bears were hungry, people said. The week before, pilots had reported seeing sixteen black bears along the bank near one village on the Yukon. In McGrath, people warned that bears were coming near the dump. Everyone was more careful; no one walked out without a gun. On an outside wall of Tom and Mary’s house two new black-bear skins were stretched to dry.
    We passed the fish camp where Efrem’s sister Alice had fished with her sons that summer. Their tents were still up, although no one was camped there.
    A golden eagle soared over the hills.
    Tom pointed to a Russian church and graveyard, a few grave markers near the ridge of the hill. There had been a village once. It was unclear why the people had left: a flood after breakup? Tom did not know.
    Up on a high bank sat a fish camp, stark against the sky. The fish box and cutting table stood down near the shoreline. A fish-wheel had been drawn up on the bar. Mary said her father claimed the place; Tom had helped built the smokehouse. Emma and her husband Alec Ivan had used it that summer.
    Tom waved toward the spot where Sara had shot her moose.
    It took a long time to go upriver. Efrem sat easily at the ’kicker’, his back firm and upright. When he was a boy and young man, no one had used boats with kickers: his relatives had walked through the country, or had built canvas or bark canoes; they had speared fish and bear, and had hunted game with bows and arrows. His sister in Village Below had told me how she, too, had hunted that way with her brothers.
    Tom had said of Efrem, as he traveled through the day he was ready: he had that quality of alertness, of acute attention given to his surroundings, that fathers taught their sons was needed for the hunt. Sons, Tom suspected, did not often know what being ready required of them. The older man set up his day: he checked its possibilities, and set useless information to one side. Young people, without the long years of discipline behind them, watched him, and thought he passed through time in a leisurely way; they saw him seem to saunter along, or to lie back against the wall, dreaming, and called him relaxed, spontaneous. They were wrong, Tom said earnestly: the man’s discipline was not only muscular; it was spiritual.
    Tom had practiced his lecture on his young brother from back East, who had spent part of the summer with them: Tom thought he had nonsensical ideas about life in the bush. Mary had told me about that brother; she thought he was lazy.
    She had said that her father still saw well, though not so far as he used to; he was slower, but still quick to spot an important thing. He read the river and steered around rocks and snags. His face was immobile: his dark eyes moved, without seeming to move.
    Above the place on Tin Creek where Sara had shot her moose, we entered The Gorge. All at once the banks soared about us and shaded the light. The boat bounced on the choppy current and carried us between slate and shale walls sloping, jagged, into the river: the water had eaten them in and out, in and out. Efrem maneuvered closed to their sharp edges, following the channel.
    One bluff stood out from those around it. The children, delighted, shouted: “Where Nick found the hawk!”
    Nick was their handsome older cousin. On Sara’s birthday, a group of the cousins had gone on a boat ride up to The Gorge; Nick, daring, had scaled the cliff and carried down a fledgling fish hawk for Sara. At home she fed it meat and dried fish. One night around midnight she had heard it call, and had gone outside. She had watched the hawk circle; swoop to the edge of the water; skim off.
    The hawk was gone. The children had teased her, saying she had spoiled it. Maybe it learned to hunt, Nick had said, to comfort her.
    I never saw slate wall like those anywhere else in that country. They rose twenty and thirty feet above the water; and sent forth protection, as mountains do. They were a test of rock, a face that appeared immobile, until the watcher looked back, across time, and saw the seams graven in it. I saw green growth clinging to edges; owls’ nests; the hawk; the fast lime water. Mary remarked that the walls were changing, that the shale broke off easily. Tom told his son to pay attention, he would have to navigate before very much longer. Efrem kept us off the rocks.
    Above The Gorge, he and Tom glanced at one another. He spoke; Tom nodded once. He cut the boat cross-channel to the point of an island, and we tied up noiselessly.
    Now everyone whispered, and Efrem, Tom, and Mary each carried a 30.06. We split into pairs. Mary and I moved off to the left; Tom and Tom Junior, Efrem and Rebecca were going to try to drive a moose our way.
    “Holler like hell!” Efrem instructed.
    Mary and I cut through willows and birches. I saw plenty of moose sign, and she pointed to recent tracks. We had to cross a silty little stream. Mary stepped into quicksand and, surprised, managed to scamper across it. She grinned, and imagined the moose’s surprise when he stepped into that stuff.
    We came upon some old, cut willows spread neatly on the bank: someone had butchered a moose. (We learned that Tom and Alec Ivan, Emma’s husband, had done it, months before.) We saw no fresh sign and heard no sound from the others.
    “Keep looking,” Mary said, and I moved downstream, cutting in through the brush. I saw plenty of old sign, but nothing fresh. When the brush grew down to the water was an old track, where a moose had once crossed.
    I circled back to the noisy stream. We traded places.
    Almost at once Mary moved her head, waving me back, and whispered she had just found a fresh print, a caribou’s. It was so fresh she figured I had missed him by minutes; he may even have crossed the stream behind me. I stood still. She considered the next move.
    When she was a little girl, she said softly, her dad and her grandpa had brought her here. She had never seen a moose, it was all new to her. “I looked hard at a stump, like the ones kids used to play airplane on: it was walking toward me! I shouted to my grandpa, ’That stump’s moving!’ He shot it. My first moose.”
She smiled.--
    A bump; then another. Both of us started: a shot? Too muffled; what, then? Two planes came into sight, Supercubs. She watched them closely as they flew by. Hunters, she supposed, coming from Anchorage through Merrill Pass; spotters. Moose season would open the next week.
    A clacking sound, stone struck on stone: Efrem and Rebecca (with her stones) appeared. Tom and Tom Junior walked out of the brush across from them. The adults compared notes. Mary described the fresh track, and the men moved out to check, circling back into the trees, this time inside a shorter radius. Mary and I again were the lookouts. We found nothing more, no animals; no other sign than the caribou’s print.
    We regrouped. Indelicately, Tom remarked that he could taste the meat in his mouth. His father-in-law said nothing and turned back to the boat.
    In the file, Tom walked ahead of me. He murmured, an aside, that we had missed our only chance, and we probably would not sight game. Efrem, who heard without seeming to listen, said mildly, “We could try another place.” Tom looked surprised, and blushed.
    Upriver, Efrem guided the boat to a spot below some rapids. We landed on a gravel bar, and made a fire for tea. Tom and Mary recalled a party of Swedes who had tried running the rapids that summer and been forced to portage most of the stretch. Downstream, later, people found some of their floating gear.
    Efrem and Tom took rifles and set off up the beach, and soon passed out of sight. Within minutes a couple of empty gas cans, lashed together, came bobbing down the river toward our camp. A shout, a scramble; Mary snagged them. The children danced around the find and made up a song. Mary thought her father must have come across the cans, and had not cared to pack them.
    As Tom Junior and Rebecca played on the beach, she told me a little more about their coming move: they were going to leave Hungry before the autumn set in. She was for it, if only to let the older girls have more experience among other people; they needed to meet boys who were not their cousins. She smiled, a little sadly, and remarked that this would be their last ride to The Gorge for a while.
    While the children built a cabin out of driftwood, I climbed a hill above the bank. I was careful to stay within sight of Mary on the beach; and she kept her rifle handy. I found a few, very few, blueberries. When Efrem and Tom appeared, I scrambled down, and reached them just as they were drinking the last of their tea. The fire had been covered and the gear packed up. We gathered in the boat, and Tom shoved off. Efrem turned the boat downstream and we headed home.

    All day the sky had been heavy with the clouds of a weather front that extended almost as far as the eye could travel. Suddenly, splendor broke through the gray cover and shards of light glinted off the rippling water. Shadows of the late day lengthened across the river. It was as if the boat had brought us this far in a dream-moment, and, without our knowing time had passed, signs of autumn had appeared between our going up and our coming down. Already, cottonwoods glowed as if lit from within; on the alders shimmered a few golden leaves. The green-browns of the brush had deepened; now, near evening, a breath of crisp air against the skin anticipated snow: soon, on the mountains. I looked back at the mountains above The Gorge. Clouds were closing down on their summits. That was how the snow would come: there would be a frost, and then another frost; ravens; low clouds lying on the mountains. One dawn, very soon, the first white line would be drawn across the peaks.
    When Efrem’s fish camp came into sight, he landed the boat and walked uphill ahead of us, to look the place over. For a long minute his silhouette was small and dark against the sky. Then, it was moving again; and we followed.
    The camp held the peace of recent habitation. The remains of human movement -- a tent frame, a pole-bed frame, a small piece of tin tacked up as a bedside table, a fire pit -- lightened the huge country around us and told us tales of activity. Someone had been lying on the bed: perhaps he had lain under a canvas roof, reading by candlelight on a cool night, with warm embers glowing in the pit. Nearby was a little cabin shingled with spruce bark: a story of warm days, people cutting fish down by the water, a daughter boiling spaghetti over the outdoor cook-fire near the doorway. Over there stood a big double smokehouse, the sun fuzzing the gaps in its planked sides, the interior cool and dim. The stoves had been set back against the walls; fish-skin boots had been folded and hung over rafters, sheets of Visqueen folded and piled high off the floor. The throaty smells of alder smoke and fish oil smoldered in the wooden boards.
    Outside, four stakes stood driven into the ground, for measuring dryfish into bundles of forty. A wash basin had been turned over to drain. A few tin cans lay about; a pile of Pampers and a faded box had not been burned. Mary was irked at the trash left behind.
    Tom walked further uphill to examine the tipi poles: during the summer his two boys had camped there. Rebecca and Tom Junior uncovered a length of antler and took turns pretending they were caribou, holding the antler against their head, tossing it as they charged around in a circle. Mary decided to carry it home and saw it up for a buckle. Her father moved deliberately around the camp, checking equipment, testing the lock on the cabin door, settling small things back into place.
    The sun began to dip. We pushed off again; there was still the chance of a moose.
    A distance below the camp we neared another island. Tom and Efrem nodded to one another: Efrem touched the boat ashore and put Tom off in the brush, then drove us fast around the point to the other side. Mary, the children, and I waited on the beach; Efrem sat in the boat, watching, holding the motor on low idle. It sounded like a soft warning growl. He sat at ease, hunched over his gun. His head turned slowly as he studied the stream. When the children made more noise than necessary, he ignored them and left it to Mary to quiet them. Behind us, the brush was still.
    Tom reappeared on the bank. Within moments we were back in the boat; Efrem had gunned the motor; and we were landing again, when a shout went up: “A porcupine!”
    The children jumped out and went splashing ashore after the
animal. Up a hill it ran, the children running close behind it, and then come the rustle of bodies thrashing about in the brush. “I got it! I got it!” Tom Junior cried.
    At once his father was standing beside him and calmly reminding both youngsters not to get in the way of the lashing tail. The porcupine stirred: Tom prodded it with a heavy stick and turned it over. Tom Junior held the axe as if it were a club and -- thud -- hit the stunned animal between the eyes.
    Tom Junior and Rebecca bent their heads together, figuring out how to drag the ninny downhill. Tom nudged me and said, “Want to see my favorite place?”
    He turned on to a path into the brush and trotted up a hill covered with muskeg. I followed more slowly, stepping from tussock to tussock to avoid the damp low spots. The music of water filled the air. We climbed over the top of a bank and made a half circle along its lip, until we came upon a small waterfall in a pretty mountain stream. The air was cool; autumn was further along in the higher elevation. The stream tumbled away over stones.
    Tom scrambled down the rock face and crouched on a ledge, looking out over the country, wrapped in his own thoughts. I lifted my head, and caught my breath: across the canyon, a wall of purple mountains; beyond it, wall upon wall of blue-green mountains, falling away to the horizon like a long, rolling ocean.
    The sun was dropping. Quickly we got underway. Rebecca and Tom Junior had curled up, little eaglets, in a nest of down coats, where they giggled and talked to each other as the boat carried us steadily down the river. There was one last flurry of excitement: a shout of “Porcupine!”, a fast beaching, and it was Rebecca’s turn to take the animal; a fat one.
    “Umm,” she said, “I LOVE porcupine.” She and her brother compared kills for a while, and decided the next one would be mine. But there was no next one; and darkness settled down on us as we reached the cabin.
    At home, the two older girls had cooked dinner. We were hungry and chilly and had wet feet, and were glad for the ease of the table. Efrem ate heartily; he had taken little food all day. The good meal was boiled fish, dryfish and dry meat, and rice, stirred with green peppers I had brought to Mary. Afterward the adults talked for a little while, then headed to bed.
    By the light of a lard lamp, a lump of Crisco stuck in a small tin, with a piece of string for a wick, I read “Bach’s Concerto No. 1 in C Minor,” by the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet.



. . . . . . . .
The repetition of my days
       that are alike,
       that are not alike.

The repetition of the weave in the weaving,
        the repetition in the starry sky,
        and the repetition of “I love” in all languages.
        The repetition of the tree in the leaves
        and of the pain of living, which ends in an instant
and on every deathbed. . . .




    I slept deeply. The quiet was broken only by the rustle of the cat, who daintily, thoroughly, ate a piece of dryfish. I stirred, and a sweet memory returned, of the end of the day on the water.
    Just before we entered Mary’s creek, not far below the cabin, I looked up and saw a hawk against the limped evening sky. It circled and swooped toward the bank. No one else saw it.

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1998, Katherine McNamara. From NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH, a work of non-fiction, Mercury House, San Francisco, 1998. With permission of Mercury House

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