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Peer Work

Home  >  Peer Work
Story Knife
By Warren J. Rhodes
Genre: Fiction Level: Adult
Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest

Some 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.

And what it meant: Ciuq'aq didn't tell stories right.

The 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.

What 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?

No respect.

When 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.

Like 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.

The 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.

Thinking 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.

Yaaruin were supposed to last a few generations, not a few stories.

***

For 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.

A 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.

With 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.

Made 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 childish toys.)  

The 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.

From 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.

More 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 Ciuq'aq ...

The 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 it before.

No respect.

The 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.

Then 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.

Most 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 them.

That no one ever saw her "cheat" failed to stop the murmurs.

"Too 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."

Come 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.

"Full of herself," some whispered behind her back.

No respect.

If 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.

And 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."

***

The 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 long-ago.

Uncle 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.

Downriver 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.

Though 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 flame.

***

Uncle 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.

Uncle 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.

As 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.

Still, 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.

Her 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.

Ciuq'aq's 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.

Which 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 first blood.

***

As 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."

Sometimes, 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.

***

He 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.

But when the fire baths started, the salmon knife, never intended to meet flame, quickly turned to ash.

Adorning 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.

That knife, charred beyond even its artist's recognition, slivered into tiny fragments after illustrating only two stories.

His 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.

Scorched, crumbled, destroyed - all of them.

No respect.

Sometimes, Uncle wasn't even sure why he spent so much time carving yaaruin for her anymore.

The 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."

***

Suddenly, 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.

Uncle 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.

"Now you've gotten yourself into a pickle," he said, louder and more severe than he intended.

She 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.

She 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.

Usually, 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.

Then Uncle noticed it.

He, 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.

No 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.

And 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.

While Uncle took all this in, Ciuq'aq paused again.

Finally, 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.

Whispers began as her audience shot puzzled looks at her retreating back. No one had ever left a story unfinished before - another first for her.

Now 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.

He 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.

Those 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.

I'm 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.

Cracks 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.

One 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. 

Out 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.

The 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 were.

"Piura," Uncle whispered. He knew that the girl, one way or another, would never see her village again.

The 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 scoured away.

Uncle 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.

***

For 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.

Uncle, 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 the mud.

He wondered then: Why would someone waste such a treat, and how did they keep them fresh all winter?

Though 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.

Every other part of Ciuq'aq's story had been wiped clean by the churning ice floes grinding their way upward from the riverbank.

Then, 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.

***

Big 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.

They 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.

Few 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.

Now 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.

The wind died so suddenly that everyone looked around, yanking their lone ear bud out to figure out what had happened.

"I 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."

And she placed her family's passed-down yaaruin into the edge of the fire.


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