The Trade Fair at Sheshalik
The Siberians are traveling with us to the trade fair, traveling along the coast, their boats piled high with the reindeer skins they have brought to trade. Our dogs run along the shore like shadows, their packs bouncing against their ribs—happy to be out in the late night sun, happy to be free. I am happy, too, gliding along in our skin boat, watching them run, wishing I could stretch my limbs and run with them, run for the sheer joy of it, as they do.
How glorious it is when summer comes again! Glorious to be out on the open water of the summer sea in the night-long sun, watching the bright ocean ice drift by, dreamlike, on the smooth dark water. Watching the grassy tundra roll past us, nearly close enough to touch, thick with the smell of sunshine and earth and greenery—Aarigaa!
Newborn animals are everywhere, too—birds and caribou and even baby seals—and we ourselves are soon to have a newborn of our own. Nuna, traveling with us, is round as a whale and clumsy in her unaccustomed shape, always forgetting she can no longer bend as fast as a child, and often impatient for her time to come.
Because it’s her first, Mama said one time.
Because it’s a girl, a big round girl, Aaka had countered, clicking her tongue and frowning the way grandmothers do sometimes. We need another hunter in this family!
Tupaaq smiled wide, eyeing Aaluk: Girls can be good hunters, too, he said, winking at me. Girls are good with arrows.
Tupaaq had asked Aaluk to ride in his boat that time, but Aaluk said no, muttering to herself how she’d rather run with the dogs. Aaka had frowned at this, because Tupaaq is from Aaka’s village, the village of my father’s people, and Aaka favors him.
I’ll go, I said. I’ll go in Tupaaq’s boat.
But Mama shook her head.
You’re too little, she said.
Too little for what? I had wondered, tall as I was. I was big, nearly bigger than Aaluk—big enough, certainly, to ride in Tupaaq’s well-made boat.
I’m big enough, I said. Saying it just like that, too, as bossy as Aaluk.
Big like a lemming. Aaluk laughed. Tupaaq laughed, too, which made my cheeks grow warm.
Wait until you grow bigger, little lemming. Just wait, Tupaaq said. Which made me feel like the lemming in the story Tupaaq always tells, the one stuck underneath an old sealskin, hollering at the top of his lungs.
Suddenly, I want to holler, too, sitting here in my father’s boat. I had waited so long for this trip to begin, but now, I realize, I’m ready for it to end, for the excitement of the trade fair to start. Waiting to hear the sound of the drums welcoming us into the Sheshalik inlet and waiting to hear the wavering note of the women’s voices, clear as water, singing the songs of Sheshalik, the Sheshalik welcoming songs.
We begin to hear their songs when we are still too far away to even see the people. The drums—we hear the drums .rst. The sound grows louder and louder, pulling us swiftly across the surface of the water, guiding us toward the spit of land, green with summer, that is Sheshalik.
As we round the .nal bend, the drumming begins to throb in the air around us like a heartbeat and the sweet shrillness of the women’s voices shoots across the surface of the water in bright arrows of sound.
Baby Manu, bouncing on her mother’s back in the front of our boat, squeals with delight, trying to sing as the women sing. I, too, am barely able to keep myself from squealing along with her.
My father has raised our .ag, the .ag of our whalers, and as soon as the drummers see it, their song changes and they begin, at once, to drum one of our own songs, announcing our arrival with our own music. Suddenly I feel very proud to be from the island, proud to claim such a brave song as the song of my own people, hearing it as if with new ears. The drumming grows louder and louder as we approach the shore, and soon the sound of our own voices joins with the sounds of theirs, sweet as birdsong.
Sheshalik, at first sight, is too big to believe—all the tents, the caribou-skin tents of our people, stretching out along the edge of the beach and reaching up inland as far as the eye can see. Over.owing with the sounds of happiness—the kind of happiness that only comes of many, many people, all coming together as one.
This is my first impression of the Sheshalik trade fair, that all the people of the world must be here. Everyone in the entire world, all here at Sheshalik, preparing to trade.
People have indeed come from many distant places, each group bringing the specialties of its own region. We ourselves have sealskin pokes full of seal oil, and split walrus skins for boat-making, because our women are the most skillful at preparing these. We also have coils and coils of sealskin rope, strong enough to pull a whale. The rope our men make is always in high demand by those from other regions. We will trade these island things for stone from the People-of-the-Land, soapstone and jade from the mountains up inland, the kind used for lamps, seal-oil lamps.
Aaluk will, of course, need a lamp of her own, now that she has become a woman. A pretty new lamp carved of jade, perhaps, or a smooth one of polished soapstone. A lamp to heat her own home, when she leaves ours for the home of her husband, whoever he may be. But not me. I have no use for a lamp just yet. Nor for a husband.
I’ve been eyeing the Siberian reindeer skins for the length of our trip together—white as snow and supple as water, piled high in the Siberians’ boats. I am wanting a new parka, a pretty new parka of Siberian reindeer, soft and light and easy to run in. I would have it with a dark wolverine ruff and leather trim dyed red with willow bark, the way the inland people make it. I hope Papa will trade one of our seal-oil pokes for enough skins for a new parka for me.
It doesn’t take long to unpack our gear, and soon our tent is snug as home with thick skins on the .oor and new people crowding in to greet us. We offer them dried seal meat, soaked in oil, my mother’s specialty. The meat is moist and chewy, rich with the .avor of the oil. The men are eating it in great quantities, telling stories and making jokes and singing little snatches of their songs. They are all smoking Siberian tobacco, too, and we sit watching the way the smoke from their pipes curls up toward the open nose of our tent in skinny little trails. As I watch, the strands of sweet-smelling smoke wind round and round one another, dissolving up through the tent’s nose and out into the open sky.
The smoke makes our eyes water and tickles our noses, making Baby Manu sneeze and sneeze, laughing every time. All of us children are laughing—sneezing and laughing, sneezing and laughing, until pretty soon none of us can tell which is which. So very good it is, to laugh together with all the many, many peoples who have come to Sheshalik to trade.
My sister, Aaluk, is not laughing at all, however. Aaluk, who is usually the center of everything, sits apart from the rest of us children—neither sneezing nor laughing. Acting as if she is already far too old for such silliness, when in truth she is but a few winters older than I. She makes a very pretty picture, however, sitting there so neat and composed, her dark hair smooth as a still river, her new tattoo as delicate as a .ower’s stem.
In truth, I am a bit jealous of her, because it seems to me she is everything I’m not. I have not yet been marked by womanhood—my face is smudged with dust alone. My hair, too, .ies in every direction, like tundra grass, and I am much too distracted to sit still and pretty the way Aaluk does.
Watching her eat her soup, her hands moving like graceful brown birds, I suddenly feel clumsy.
That one Siberian is watching her, too. The one who wears a string of large blue beads. His dark eyes follow Aaluk the way a wolf watches a caribou, never resting. I do not know this man and his bold stare scares me. Is he good or is he evil? And Aaluk is watching him as well, watching shyly, her eyes down—Aaluk who has never in her life been shy about anything. Aaluk, the bossy one, who has always turned her chin to the boys. Boys, Aaluk says, are rough and blustering and not worth the bother.
But now here she is, watching that Siberian—who after all is only an older boy—watching him the way he watches her: neither of them laughing, barely even blinking or smiling, their eyes full of sparks. That boy-man, who has placed his sealskin parka next to my father’s and now sits on my mother’s skins, his beads glowing blue against his broad brown chest.
I am immediately drawn to those beads. They are so blue, so very blue that I want, desperately, to touch them, to touch one of them, just once. But, of course, I do not.
You can barely imagine a blue of such power, glowing in the lamplight as if lit by an internal magic. Blue the way certain .sh are blue in shallow water, their scales .ashing blue in the sunlight—a blue like that, only different. A kind of blue none of us have ever seen before. It feels strange to me and a little frightening, the power of those beads and of the man wearing them.
I look away, determined to be bothered no more by all of this.
Baby Manu is toddling toward me with a serious look on her little face. I reach out my arms and she tries to move faster, but instead topples down with a plop. Her mouth starts to pout and I know she is about to cry, but she looks like such a funny little .sh that I cannot help but laugh. When she sees me laughing, she stops pouting and smiles, too, looking at me with trusting eyes as if to say: If you think it’s funny, it must be so. I reach out again, asking her with my own eyes if she wants to come to me. Yes? I ask, raising my eyebrows. She looks up at me, lifting her own eyebrows to say yes, too, just like a big person.
I scoop her up into my arms and she nuzzles her head under my chin and begins sucking her thumb, falling asleep at once. We lean back together against a pile of skins, and let the old men’s stories wash over us in waves of sound that rise and fall with emotion, making people laugh with delight in one moment and gasp in terror the next.
Excerpted from Blessing's Bead by Debby Dahl.
Copyright © 2009 by Debby Dahl Edwardson.
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
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