of the spindrift coming off the frozen river managed to find its way down the
neck of Uncle's parka, melting immediately, but that wasn't why he was staring
at the small fire his niece had built. He eyed the few flames, shaking his head
just a little bit, because of what lay half in the winking, blood-red embers.
what it meant: Ciuq'aq didn't tell stories right.
little girl told the best ones - everyone in Curarpalek knew that. Still, there
was her bone yaaruin, her story knife, in the fire, one that was completely unnecessary in the April sun.
One tip of the carved moose scapula, taken from a yearling to better fit her tiny
hand, blackened in preparation for the next chapter of her story.
other girl treated yaaruin like the
picked-clean bones of a goose? Worse, what other downriver Yup'ik, female or male,
wasted scarce wood every time a story asked to be sung?
the wind flung a few more stinging crystals at his neck, Uncle glanced from the
fire to the ice-entombed Kusquqvak 100 feet to the south. White on white, but
still he noticed things.
the rest of the northern world, the Alaska river was just beginning to awaken -
liquid overflow seeping imperceptibly closer to the plywood houses of the village
with each day that crept up past freezing. But with breakup not due for two to
four weeks, more likely six, the channel ice near Curarpalek had yet to lift,
and only a handful of barely noticeable rotten spots disrupted the Kusquqvak's crackless
surface. The last Uncle had heard, there was open water in Nikolai, far upriver
where the trees were, but not at Tochak, where the big riverboats had to turn
around in summer, or at Cellitemiut, Napamiut or any of the other villages
closer to the mountain sources of the river.
elders figured at least three feet of ice remained on the Kusquqvak opposite
Curarpalek, enough to easily support the weight of a man, even one pulling a
loaded qamutiq. Now that the melt was
coming, if you stood on the river on a windless day and listened carefully for
a long while, the faint crackles, creaks, squeals, groans, fizzles and pops escaping
from below every few breaths did their best to mimic a fire - if only the
sounds were sped up a hundredfold.
of that made Uncle look back to the actual fire as his 11-year-old niece approached
the flickering glow, heading for the remnants of what had been some of his best
scrimshaw. A traveler told him he once saw one of Uncle's carvings for sale in
the big city, and the crazy gussaq storekeeper
was asking enough money to buy a month of heating oil. This latest story knife
could have brought two - maybe - but none of Uncle's art remained. What wasn't consumed
entirely by the hungry flames was obscured by three or four layers of soot.
were supposed to last a few generations, not a few stories.
centuries, the girl-children of the Yupiit had not only been singing their
people's most important stories but also illustrating them with stick figures
and other symbols. Storytelling, like most important skills, began as a game. Squatting
in the snow during winter and spring, and in the mud or dirt once the snows had
gone, the girls would tap into their imaginations, then sing and scratch into
existence what they saw there. Seconds later, like a Tibetan finished with a
sand mandala, the singer made a sweeping, horizontal pass of the knife to wipe
the slate clean and ready the stage for the next scene.
speedy knife, not artistry, was prized the most. Slower thinkers, no matter how
good their artwork or verbal skill, weakened their stories by making the actors
afterthoughts, etching them only after they were sung into existence. The
quicker-witted girls, however, started scratching most of the lines of
characters well before they took the stage, a few strokes at a time off to the
side of their current figure, then slashing a final line to transform chaos
into order at the same instant the character's name was sung.
the best singers, the swaying, dipping and swooping of the yaaruin knife was an art form in itself, almost independent of the
story told or the patterns materializing below.
of ivory or driftwood and adorned with familial designs carved by their father
or grandfather - or an uncle when necessary - the most artful knives were
considered heirlooms and passed down like the stories. Young girls eagerly look
forward to the particular elriq remembering-the-dead
feast when they are finally honored with their story knife, since it means the
Yupiit consider her mature enough to be entrusted with the tales of their
ancestors. (Another rite of passage is menarche, when a girl becomes a woman
and puts aside her yaaruin and other
women made sure the young ones heard the most important stories - classics like
the magic man who searched for the murderer of his four brothers, the
adventures of the trickster raven, or the man who paddled his angyaqatak up among the stars, bringing
back the first fire for the real people - while older girls taught the small
ones a few simple drawings to get them started. The game then progressed
individually as the younger girls found their voice and told the tales with
their own embellishments, both orally and visually.
the beginning, the art of Ciuq'aq stood out from the other little girls', and
for that matter, the older ones' too. No one weaved delicate lines together
like her: the ducks so detailed, even on dirt, you could tell not only a pintail
from a teal, but pin feathers from bloodless. Sometimes, when the wind whipped
off the river, fanning the pages of her earthen sketchbook, some onlookers
swore that the wings had motion and the eyes, life.
than one person compared her carving of the ground to Uncle's on wood and bone.
Those old enough remembered that the boy, too, seemed to improve with almost
every attempt, right from the start. The difference, though, between man and girl-child
was that innovation never now crossed his mind; the old ways were good enough. But
changes in her storytelling began small. Instead of squatting like every other
girl, she stood and started dancing the tales too - even though no one had done
first audiences were so shocked by her upright posture it took quite a while
for someone to focus on what was happening below, and then it became all the
village could talk about. Story knife in hand like a taruyamaarutek feather fan, she'd strike down every few steps to
scratch at her feet. Every 20 to 30 beats, those transfixed by her movements
would glance down and realize that, without their knowing exactly when it had
happened, the slashes had become a familiar image - an animal, a hero, a
dancer, a beach.
she added to her palette again. Her shuffling and stamping yuraq swirled the dusty or icy canvas upon meeting each foot,
obscuring what she had drawn for only a handful of seconds. When the miniature cloud
settled, what remained below had changed. Ciuq'aq never left half-destroyed
pictures behind, only easily recognizable images that somehow bore little
resemblance to what had been scratched there seconds earlier.
Yupiit looked on with wonder and enjoyment, but the kind of people who are
never happy without an answer for every question swore she must secretly start
each story days early by drawing a picture and letting it set, covering it with
a deep layer of snow or dust, then repeating the process for two, three, six
layers of images. It was the only explanation, they insisted. When she finally
sang the story, they concluded, she had
to be slowly uncovering the figures during her song instead of creating
no one ever saw her "cheat" failed to stop the murmurs.
much work," Ciuq'aq told Uncle when the silly rumor reached her ear. "I just
draw the story whenever it tells me it needs to be heard."
to think of it, Uncle mused, his niece talked more to her yaaruin than people. Soon after her dancing started, whenever the
people saw her out in the village with her story knife, someone inevitably and
eagerly would ask what tale she would be telling that day. Ciuq'aq always
replied that she didn't know, barely breaking stride as she walked to whatever
errand was calling her.
of herself," some whispered behind her back.
people stopped her and pressed further, the girl said she never knew which
story it would be until the knife told her. That was why she always started a
story by asking the yaaruin how it
was today: "Cangacit?" Only then
would she be ready to welcome the Yupiit around her: "Cama-i" - good to see you.
every time his niece came back to the smoldering fire and took up her toy, she
greeted the knife loudly, like a real person: "Waqaa, yaaruin." Then a whisper: "Sorry about your fancy outfit."
stories themselves became another crevasse yawning between Ciuq'aq and her
peers. Most girls memorized a few traditional tales but relied mainly on
original work - teasing but loving gossip about familiar folks in the village, like
how one's youngest brother had taken his first moose, or how handsome a particular
young man was. The stories from his niece - who unlike the others sang only in
beautiful Yugtun with no harsh Russian sprinkled in - rarely acknowledged that
her village even had inhabitants. Ciuq'aq preferred instead to sing of the
had to admit that, despite her strange love of marrying story knife to fire, no
other girl sang the before-time stories anymore, in Yugtun or the newer tongues.
He wasn't even certain where she'd heard some of the tales - he barely recalled
a handful of the details that apparently flowed so easily from her.
at the smoky village of Mamterilleq, where they were trying to revive the
dances banned by the church in Uncle's grandfather's time, the little girl's
intricate weaving of Yugtun into tapestries of song would certainly amaze the
elders assembled there - if Uncle ever exposed her to the strangers, that is.
Yupiit, those people would never get a chance to disapprove of her - no child
should ever again be subjected to the unendurable silence of a hall full of old
ones. Nothing, he vowed, would be allowed to extinguish the little girl's
recalled the first time she scorched her yaaruin,
a year after she received it: Thinking it an accident, he kicked dirt in the
fire. A universal intake of breath later, one of the shocked aunties smiled and
called him "Uncle Art Critic." Eight-year-old Ciuq'aq missed the reprimand-as-joke
- as well as his slight cringe - since the little girl had already tottered off
to the riverside to gather more bits of fuel to rekindle her fire.
didn't want the new nickname to stick, so when Ciuq'aq moved to restart her
tale a few minutes later, he let her - her way. Cinders caught the breeze
flowed waterlike up to the sky.
she combined the sounds of her language with the visuals from the hot end of
the bone, ash became her italics, and
soot her bold. Occasionally, a
glowing bone fragment dropped - accidentally, it seemed to some - to punctuate
a long-simmering phrase.
the cooler, cleaner end of the story knife satisfied Ciuq'aq for the bulk of
each story. Overuse of the sooty tip, the little one told Uncle once, would
seem like shouting.
best canvas was snow, where she could dabble in the gradations of heat instead
of carbon residue. The mere approach of the steaming knife set the crystal
lattices to diverging and realigning, with only the minutely deepening shadows
of the grooves - if you could notice them in the flat light of a winter day -
alerting onlookers that change was occurring. By the time the audience's eyes
focused on the Ircenrraat, for
instance, the dangerously deceptive little-people kidnappers of the tundra were
already morphing into other shapes, just as the stories said they did.
new way of storytelling, like most changes that had befallen the Yupiit in the
last two centuries, was both good and bad. Good, because the people liked it so
much they began hashing over the details of the old stories as much they talked
up the latest basketball game at the school. Bad, because now no one wanted
stories the old way. The other girls couldn't compete, couldn't replicate the transformative
sketchings of Ciuq'aq, so one by one they gave up on the art of storytelling.
meant that unless she could teach her own daughter - if she ever produced one, that
is - the art of the yaaruin would be
gone like smoke from Curarpalek once Ciuq'aq put down the knife permanently at
his niece greeted the yaaruin one
last time to finish her story, Uncle thought, "This latest knife won't even see
breakup, the tales came so often to Panika."
when he was distracted, the word for daughter slipped into his speech without
him noticing. He was busy calculating if this one was the 14th or 15th
story knife he had carved for her.
had spent a month on the first one, painstakingly etching the likeness of the
salmon-folk that, air-dried in thin strips after weeks of kuvyaq on the river, kept the real people alive all winter. As the yaaruin jerkily danced during the
child's first stories, Uncle happily watched the carved fish leap and sparkle
in her hand.
when the fire baths started, the salmon knife, never intended to meet flame,
quickly turned to ash.
the second yaaruin he made for
Ciuq'aq were images of the seal-people far downriver, past Mamterilleq. They
sometimes gave themselves to the Yupiit, to not only be eaten but rendered into
tasty dipping oil and warm winter clothes.
knife, charred beyond even its artist's recognition, slivered into tiny
fragments after illustrating only two stories.
third, fourth and fifth gifts to her each showed a different bird of the
tundra, while Ciuq'aq's later ones featured the trees and bears from the
shadows of the mountains or the moose and berries from the flats.
crumbled, destroyed - all of them.
Uncle wasn't even sure why he spent so much time carving yaaruin for her anymore.
last time he complained about wasted effort, Ciuq'aq put her forehead to his
and said, "Quyana, Uncle, for the
love I feel in every yaaruin. You're
part of my stories even if no one else knows."
Uncle noticed something peculiar - she had let her last few drawings remain on
the snow, boxing herself in. Usually the wind, a quick hand sweep or a few
dance steps would clear her a path to the end of the story, but Ciuq'aq paused
and made no move to disturb the snow. Her rapt audience waited silently for the
finale, the only sound a soft wheeze from the slumbering river.
knew this particular tale wanted to end with a hopeful dawn, the rays erupting
from an arc topping the horizon line, but Ciuq'aq had no room to draw it. He
was surprised when he realized that her immobility saddened him.
you've gotten yourself into a pickle," he said, louder and more severe than he
shook her head suddenly, as if casting off a dream during sleep, then started
to dance in silence, carefully stepping between the lines of at least a dozen
separate images from earlier chapters. As Ciuq'aq swirled in wider and wider
circles, dipping low and craning high, her footfalls grew faster and faster,
and Uncle could not see how she found unmarked space for even one toe to settle
on without disturbing the intricate drawings.
kicked a haze of crystals into a halo around her, and with every light breeze
that pulsed off the river, ice fog a few inches high dribbled in waves over her
stage, briefly obscuring each drawing before moving on to cloud the next.
so much frenetic activity on the part of Ciuq'aq would have disturbed every
image so much that they would become whatever the storyteller needed next, but this
time the past dug its claws in and the scene remained static. The cooling knife
in the hand of the little girl repeatedly danced inches over the snow, never
touching, but no one could see a change.
Uncle noticed it.
like everyone else, had been focused on the graceful bounding of the under-sized
storyteller, but he finally willed his eyes to let her move on while he
concentrated on a spot she danced through a minute ago - her rendering of the
salmonberry bush, picked clean at the end of the growing season.
one else seemed to notice that the picture-bush bore fruit again - the
shallowest of scratched dots around the branch lines. Suddenly - Uncle must
have blinked - they deepened, became dimples in the snow, so the bush resembled
its earlier self near the beginning of the story.
then the setting sun played a little trick, pouring orange and red light into
the tiny depressions, so it appeared the girl's dots were actual berries, ripe
and bursting with juices despite the spring's cold temperatures.
Uncle took all this in, Ciuq'aq paused again.
her story knife stabbed down and made contact - not terribly deep but with just
enough force to impale the packed snow. The
little girl let the dull knife remain in the wound, straightened and turned
south toward the river, lightly leaping away, again somehow touching down on virgin
snow between the crowded and undisturbed lines of her story so far. She reached
the end of the art and kept going.
began as her audience shot puzzled looks at her retreating back. No one had
ever left a story unfinished before - another first for her.
on the surface of the Kusquqvak itself, Ciuq'aq sat down in one of the many greyish
puddles of rotting slush. No one else would sit in such a place, Uncle thought,
before his memory, immediately questioning itself, told him that particular
spot had been unbroken, shining glare ice just moments before.
felt a rumbling in his chest. Soon, it became an actual sound from upriver that
all could hear, followed by a squeal from the same direction, drawn out over a full
minute or more. The noise ended with a series of firework-like booms. The
process repeated: Squeal, crash. Shriek, boom.
with younger eyes noted tiny puffs rise upriver, marking where the flexing ice suddenly
released the energy stored there all winter. Everyone within a half-mile of the
Kusquqvak knew these sounds; they marked the river's yearly reawakening.
in the dream world, Uncle thought. Breakup was still a month off - more,
probably. He also knew that the process took two weeks or more, not seconds.
spread along the waterway closer to the village as three-foot-thick slabs rose in
the center and lurched over ice still tethered to the bottom like a seal
beaching itself. Suddenly, Uncle saw the channel ice below Ciuq'aq lift the
height of a tall man, pushing the lesser ice aside toward the banks, and his
heart dropped an equal distance. All around her, blocks bigger than the qasqiq tribal hall collided with one another,
their cracking like gunshots and their tortured roars like thunder.
day many autumns ago, Uncle had lay down and covered his ears upon hearing an
abandoned rowboat ground to splinters by ice; what he now witnessed sounded
like the whole of the Bristol Bay fleet getting staved in.
on the river ice, bucking up and down but somehow remaining in place, Ciuq'aq raised
one mittened hand to her neighbors but made sure she caught the eye of Uncle. Through
the cacophony of ice moving around her, he thought he heard the word "piura" - goodbye - but he couldn't be
sure in the deafening rush as much of the scalloped riverside mud gave way and
the entire river shrugged off its winter mantle.
villagers knew the spring surge always sent ice into any building built too
close to the Kusquqvak, this one time of year forgetting to live up to its
name, "the big, slow thing." Through the violent airborne eruptions of crystals
and spray, the Yupiit on the bank saw whale-sized bergs tumbling end over end,
breaking into smaller chunks, and they lost sight of their storyteller as most
ran for higher ground. Uncle and a handful of others remained frozen where they
"Piura," Uncle whispered. He knew that the
girl, one way or another, would never see her village again.
torrent of ice threw gusts off the river that pummeled the few villagers still
gathered around Ciuq'aq's illustrations. Her story, like its teller, was
scanned the undulating horizon downriver, looking for a shadow resembling his
niece. A person-shaped figure caught his eye only once amid the maelstrom, but before
he could focus in the distance, his glance was drawn downward, to the ground
around his mukluks.
years later, many more people than the handful who Uncle recalled remained at
the river claimed that they were brave enough to stay. These amateur storytellers
were content with their own, church-approved version of the girl's disappearance:
that God didn't like Ciuq'aq's evil ways, that he smote her from the earth with
an unseasonably early and sudden breakup, that the sun came out of the ever-present
bank of late-winter clouds and created a rainbow at sunset, signifying God's covenant
with the righteous.
however, told a different story. Multicolored light playing around his feet had
drawn his gaze downward, and when he looked there, he saw that he and the few around
him stood on bare ground, except for a few plump salmonberries glistening in
wondered then: Why would someone waste such a treat, and how did they keep them
fresh all winter?
the sun was below the horizon, nearly extinguished, sunbeams seemed to seep out
of a new symbol on the ground: the panika,
the daughter, centered around the smoking yaaruin
Ciuq'aq had left piercing the girl's heart. Pulsing waves of light, red and
purple and orange and yellow and a few hues Uncle didn't have names for, snaked
around the feet of the people there like ice fog in a breeze.
other part of Ciuq'aq's story had been wiped clean by the churning ice floes
grinding their way upward from the riverbank.
like veteran dogs in harness answering a command, the scouring bergs turned
downhill in unison. Forgetting to threaten the village any longer, they slipped
downhill, rejoining their snarling brethren in the river.
flakes of springtime snow danced circles as wind cut through the stunted black
spruce near the Kuskokwim River. A small group of Yup'ik teens, most sporting
at least one facial piercing and one ear bud wired to a hidden mp3 player
within their jacket, gathered around a small fire.
didn't know one another - they had come from villages upriver and downriver
over river ice that soon wouldn't hold them, much less their sno-gos. For now,
at least, the Kuskokwim made a fairly smooth highway.
had a destination in mind when they left their home villages; most cared only about
the leaving, even if the prize was only a few hours of freedom. The kids let
their machines have their head, hands lightly resting on the handlebars, bumping
over the tundra wherever they would. But they all somehow found the river, and
found their way here.
the iron dogs were huddled together to one side as a windbreak as the teens
passed the time, waiting for visibility to improve so they could head home. No
other manmade objects were visible in the swirling snow.
wind died so suddenly that everyone looked around, yanking their lone ear bud
out to figure out what had happened.
think my auntie told me about this place," one girl said. She blew on her
hands, flexed her stiff fingers and stuffed them deep in the front pocket of
her parka, fishing around. "Chuathbaluk, I think they called it. A storyteller
used to live here."
she placed her family's passed-down yaaruin
into the edge of the fire.