by Dan Branch
Needing to collect statements from clients in the village of Merkoryuk, Alaska, I took a twin otter prop plane to Nunivak Island village. On approach, the plane flew over the circle of breakers that marks the Mekoryuk reef, then a shelf of ice.
Mekoryuk is the only village on Nunivak Island, 30 miles offshore from the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta. Without seeking permission from the Nunivak residents or even warning them about their plans, government officials released herds of muskox and reindeer on the island. Unable to pilot their freighter through the nasty reef, the government officials pushed the reindeer into the ocean and let them find their own way onto the island. Enough survived to form a herd that thrives today. The muskox, which arrived after the government figured a way through the reef, didn’t have to swim for it.
My friend John met me at the village airstrip. The mail plane agent drove us to John’s house. His mom served up paper-thin slabs of dried pink salmon meat and bowls of crystal-clear seal oil. Gulps of tea were not enough to wash down the salmon so I had to dip each piece in seal oil between bites.
John’s mom squinted at me and then the little chamber pot that serves as the house’s toilet. She did this several times before saying something in Yup’ik to her son. Without smiling, he explained that, in her experience, most white people get the runs if they eat so much seal oil. That’s when I stopped dipping my salmon.
After wiping seal oil off our fingers, we visited an 80-year-old bachelor named Sam Prince. The 5-foot-tall man lived in an 8 foot by 12 foot shack sided with weathered plywood. At Sam’s request, I sat on his bed platform, which stood four feet off the ground. At that height, he could keep his old bones out of the cold air that pooled all winter near the cabin’s floor. Because the island is unforested, most of the village homes are heated with oil-fired stoves. Sam’s small place was warmed by a driftwood stove.
Through John, Sam apologized for not having any gussuck (white person) food to share. But I could try fermented walrus blubber. After I said I’d like that, Sam reached under the bed platform and pulled out a steel bread bowl covered with a towel.
I can’t recall how the bowl smelled but I do remember it contained off-white fat chunks. I popped one in my mouth and began to chew. It tasted like castor oil. I smiled, said it was good, and chewed some more. I planned to swallow as quickly as possible. A few minutes later, the blubber clogged my mouth. After giving me a quick glance, John told Sam we had to leave. I gave the old man’s hand the Yup’ik once up and down shake. His eyes glowed with humor, but his mouth didn’t give it away.
Outside, I asked John why we left in such a hurry. He told me that my face was turning green. After looking around to make sure no one was watching us, I spat out the walrus blubber.
My bowels enjoyed a calm night in John’s house. After morning tea, I visited clients, drinking more tea and collecting information. While I was walking past the school teacher’s house, a woman called to me from the doorway. She was the tallest woman that I had seen all day. She had shoulder-length brunette hair and wore an LL Bean sweater, Levi jeans, and slippers.
When I reached her front door, the woman said, “I heard there was a legal aid lawyer in town. You want to come in for coffee and a slice of cake.”
After hanging up my parka on a hook near the front door, I followed her into the living room and took a seat on a couch. The woman I remember as “Rudy’s wife” headed into the kitchen to make coffee.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs must have designed the house to make their white school teachers feel like they had never left Kansas, or whatever state they lived before moving to Bush Alaska. The place has sheetrock walls painted Navajo white, three bedrooms, and a modern suburban kitchen. I couldn’t imagine any place more different from Sam Prince’s shack. Every Fall, a freighter called “The North Star” delivered enough food and supplies for the teachers to make it through the school year without having to shop at the village store or eat walrus meat.
While she measured Folgers coffee into her coffee maker, Rudy’s wife demanded gossip about other BIA school teachers. I told her about the guy who taught school four years ago in a village on the Lower Yukon that I’ll call “St. Olga.” The principal teacher in Hooper Bay had shared the story with me last spring.
At 9 A.M. each morning, all the BIA principals on the Yukon or Kuskokwim Rivers checked in with their supervisor in Bethel. None of the schools had phones so they connected with short-wave radios. One at a time, the supervisor asked each principal for an update of their status. Most told him everything was fine. Some principals reported maintenance issues or the need for more supplies. The principal of St. Olga complained about the latest prank his students pulled on him.
At the beginning of the school year, the St. Olga teacher laughed as he described how his grade-schoolers had left tacks on his desk chair. After Christmas the pranks got worse, and the voice of the man reporting them saddened. One Spring morning, St. Olga didn’t join the meeting at 9 A.M. Just before the supervisor ended it, the St. Olga principal apologized for being late. One of the kids had put superglue in the school locks. The principal had to break a window to get into the building. That afternoon the supervisor flew out to St. Olga and relieved the poor man.
As she carried a tray with coffee and cake into the living room, Rudy’s wife said that she wasn’t surprised the St. Olga principal had a meltdown. This year’s principal has been facing similar pranks. She told me that Rudy was out cross-country skiing, she sat next to me on the couch and sipped her coffee.
After finishing her slice of cake, Rudy’s wife told me that he is very jealous. At first, I thought this was a warning not to try any funny business. Then she started a story about Sam Prince.
The last time that Rudy was out cross-country skiing, Sam Prince knocked on her front door. She invited him to sit on the couch and brought him coffee. Since they lacked a common language, neither spoke. Sam said, “ummm” after he took a bite of her cake. She smiled a thank you for the compliment. Then, they sat side by side in silence. After an hour, she got up, tapped her watch and said in a loud voice, “I have to start cooking dinner.” Sam gave her a confused look.
Rudy’s wife pantomimed making dinner and gave her watch another significant look. Then, she picked up Sam’s parka and carried it to him. The diminutive Sam popped up from the couch, grabbed Ruby’s wife, and bent her back over his knee. He French kissed her for 30 seconds and then released her. Before she could catch her breath, Sam raised his index finger, placed it over his mouth and said, “Don’t Tell Rudy.”
Dan Branch lives in Juneau, Alaska. Kestrel included one of his essays in their Fall 2015 issue. Other essays or poems were published by The Cardiff Review, Gravel, Metonym, Tahoma Literary Review, Punctuate, Stoneboat, Swamp Ape Review, Windmill: The Hofstra Journal of Art & Literature, and Portland Magazine. He received an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Alaska Anchorage where his creative thesis won the 2016 Jason Winger Award for Creative Nonfiction.