Once we had a mom. She wasn't coming back. That's what Iris said she told Jerry the day she flew away. She had a twelve-string guitar and apparently liked music more than caribou and bears and a moss roof that leaked. She'd left us alone with none of those thousand warm things children with mothers don't count. Abe never talked about it. He never painted it. Her leaving was the back wall of my memory.
Iris scraped at the ice on the window with her fingernails inside her sleeve. Her bony elbows stuck out of her shirt. "They're chaining below the willows so the drifts won't bury his dogs." She flitted away to hang our parkas on pegs over the wood box, push mukluks and clothes tighter into the corners and under our bunks. Caribou hairs clung to all our clothes. She whisked hair and Abe's plane shavings and sawdust into dirt corners with a goose wing.
The north wind swept the open tundra and howled into the spruce on the bank where our sod home was buried in the permafrost. The skylight shuddered. Snow laced over the riverbank. The gray wool of moving snow hid the horizons. Overhead the frozen sky purpled with night, and above the wind and frantic branches clung watery stars. Out under the ice, the wide Kuguruk River flowed past the door, through the arctic part of Alaska that our mail-order schoolbooks called barren icy desert. That shamed me, that quick, throwaway description flung from the far rich East, printed in the black-and-white validation of a textbook. My protests only made Abe shrug.
The homemade Visqueen window shivered and whacked. The men chopped a frozen caribou for the dogs. The dogs ripped the skin off the meat and swallowed chunks. They guarded the skin, pinning it down with their claws. When the last bone and meat crystal was sniffed off the snow, they chewed the hair off the skin, ate the skin. Then they curled up to protect their faces and feet.
We heard the men trudging through the drift, up on the eave, down into the trench to the door. The snow squeaked as Abe shoveled, then pounded on the skin door. "Chop the ice along the bottom! Hear me?" Jerry scrambled for the hatchet. "Now get back!" Torn by wind and muffled by the skins, his voice came in mad. I hid behind the water barrel. Abe and Enuk surged in out of the swirling snow. Ovals of frozen skin and drifted-on ice whitened their faces. I stared, longing for frostbite, the scars of heroes. Abe pulled his hood back and his curly yellow hair sprang out; his turquoise eyes shone above his bearded face. "Windy."
"Alappaa tat wind." Enuk was a few inches shorter than Abe. His wide face was stiff, his goatee iced. The men grinned and shook snow off their parkas and whipped snow off their mukluks. They eased ice off their whiskers. Iris danced barefoot between them, smiling and scooping up snow to throw in the slop bucket. I wished I could move like her, light and smiling. Behind the water barrel I stood on the dirt and the damp mouse turds, excited at having company.
Enuk's gaze swung and pinned me down. "Hi Yellow-Hair! Getting big! How old?" His face was dark and cold-swollen.
Travelers all carried names for me, like the first-class mail. None were the ones I wanted. I inched out beside the blasting stove, my eyes down. "Five." It was hard to look at Enuk--or any traveler--in the eyes after seeing no people for weeks. It was hard to speak and not run and hide again. Enuk's frost-scarred face betrayed mysteries and romantic hard times that drew a five-year-old boy with swollen dreams. He was muscled in the forearms in the way of a skinned wolverine. He didn't eat most store-bought food, except Nabob boysenberry jam. When he was out hunting with his dog team and snowshoes he carried a can of jam. He'd chop it open and-after dried meat, or frozen meat, or cooked meat-around his campfire he'd suck on chips of frozen jam. He also carried his little moosehide pouch. Inside were secrets; once he'd let us hold gold nuggets, lumpy, the diameter of dimes. We handed them back and they disappeared in the folds of leather. The day I turned old I was going to be Enuk. Small discrepancies left footprints in my faith, such as the fact that he was Eskimo and I seemed to be staying naluagmiu. But years lined up ahead, promising time for a cure.
Excerpted from Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner, pages 7-13 of the hardcover edition. Copyright © 2004 by Seth Kantner. All rights reserved. Excerpted by permission of the publisher, Milkweed. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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