The Great Death

John Smelcer

Henry Holt and Co.

Ts'ilk'ey

(One)

In Yani’da’a, the long-ago time, Raven was flying around looking for something to eat. He was very hungry as usual. Once, he had even been hungry the day after he finished eating a whale.

SOME STORIES ARE TOO BIG to be told all at once, even if they seem small. Largeness of story has nothing to do with the length of each word or of each sentence or with the number of pages, but with the capacity of the heart, which can take only so much.

This is such a story.

It begins in a little-known corner of Alaska less than two decades after the end of the Klondike Gold Rush, one of America’s last great adventures. Back then, there stood a small village at the northern edge of a great lake surrounded on the south side by mountains and fed by a glacier. A fast-running river flows from the far eastern side of the lake. Indeed, the name for the river in the local indigenous language, Tazlina, means “swift river.”

Don’t bother to look for the village on a map; you won’t find it.

The People had lived in this country forever, not forever in the sense that a farming family that has lived on the same farm for generations would use the word, but so long as to give depth and width and the smell of age to the word.

More than two dozen families dwelled in small log houses at the edge of the lake. They weren’t very tall houses, for they were built partially into the ground, which had the benefit of cooling them in summer and warming them in winter. The roofs were covered with sod, the heavy soil insulating the homes. They were abloom with weeds and wildflowers. And every green roof was adorned with weathered, gray caribou and moose antlers—some very large, for game was plentiful in those days.

Smoke from cooking fires rose and drifted through the village, helping to drive away mosquitoes, the plague of summertime, from which there was no true escape. Racks made of willow were laden with strips of red salmon hanging to dry in the sun and wind. Little houses on tall legs stood back in the forest of black spruce. These caches, accessible only by ladder, stored dried fish and meat out of the reach of animals.

Canoes were pulled up on the gravel beach. At the western edge of the village, a thin footbridge made of a fallen timber spanned a clear stream, which was full of bright red salmon. Dogs ran about barking and sniffing and searching for something to eat. Children helped their families—sons helping fathers and uncles, daughters helping mothers and aunts—or they chased the dogs along the beach or skipped rocks on the water.

In such a small village, everyone was somehow related. But on such a harsh land the amity of other villages was important. In time of famine, when the great herds of caribou did not come into the country during winter, that sense of wider community could mean the difference between life and death. Sharing in time of need is paramount in the north, where snow and quiet and darkness rule the land for half a year at a time. It is one of the most essential laws.

It was in this village that the story begins.

But it does not end there.

Several spear-holding men were standing knee-deep in the stream as it widened and shallowed, emptying into the lake. The bottom of the creek was sand and pebbles, where salmon congregated and readied themselves for their final push upstream, up to the headwater that would welcome their spawn—life arising from death as day arises from night; such is the cycle of existence.

The men stabbed salmon with the long, barbed spears, flinging them ashore to their wives, who deftly cut them open and tossed the innards back into the water so that the spirits of the salmon could return to the sea. It was important that the People respect the salmon, which they depended on to outlast the long, desolate winters. If the salmon spirits thought they had been disrespected, they might not return in the future.

Two eagles watched everything from the treetops. Seagulls hovered and mewed above the women, diving and fighting one another for whatever was flung into the moving water, and far out on the lake, ducks floated on the shimmering blue-gray surface. Even farther, on the distant horizon, the white glacier crept in the distance.

Upstream from the men was the little footbridge, and upstream of that stood two young girls, sisters—the older and taller on the right bank, the younger girl perched precariously on a large rock midstream, several other large rocks protruding from the water behind her.

“Jump!” shouted Millie from the bank. “You can make it!”

“But I can’t!” Maura shouted above the din of the rushing water. “I’ll fall in!”

Maura had jumped from one rock to another, but now the distance to shore seemed too great.

“You’re always afraid of everything!” shouted Millie. She was impatient because her mother had asked her to fetch her younger sister. Mother would be angry at her for taking so long, even though it was Maura’s fault they were late. She had stood on the boulder for a long time, too frightened to leap. But that wouldn’t matter. Millie was older; it was she who would be blamed.

“I am not,” replied Maura quietly, barely audible above the rushing water, almost losing her footing on the slippery rock.

But it was true. Maura wouldn’t even go to the outhouse alone after dark. She always made her sister go with her, and she always sang a little song while inside, her heels nervously tapping against the boards.

Running past Millie, a lean dog chased a squirrel up a tree and then peered eagerly into the limbs, barking at the chattering escapee. It wasn’t their dog. Dozens of dogs roamed the village.

“Hurry up and jump!” Millie shouted. “Mother said to come home!”

“I can’t. I’ll fall in,” replied Maura, almost in tears, thinking of the swift, icy water.

Millie reached out her hand. “Grab hold when you jump! I’ll catch you!”

Maura crouched, not nearly low enough, and jumped, landing in water up to her waist. Salmon darted from beneath and about her, splashing every which way up and down the stream, the way they do when wading bears try to pounce on them. Maura stood only a step from shore crying, the ends of her long black hair floating around her.

Millie leaned forward and helped her little sister out of the stream. “You’re too frightened. You really must grow up.” Her tone was stern, in a motherly sort of way, though she was only three years older. Millie even looked like their mother. Maura took after their father.

Maura stopped crying as she walked behind Millie on the narrow trail to their house, her dress dripping. Mosquitoes buzzed about them; the squirrel-chasing dog followed on their heels, stopping often to mark bushes and trees.

“But I’m only ten,” she said quietly, feeling a little ashamed of herself.

“At your age, I was swimming in the lake,” Millie said over her shoulder. “You’re too afraid even to wade in the stream.”

Maura didn’t say anything for several steps but finally managed, “I can’t help it if I’m small.”

As she walked, Maura stretched her stride to match the prints left by her sister’s moccasins on the sandy trail.

Millie stopped and turned to Maura. “The badger is small, but even the mighty bear fears him.”

Neither of the girls said a word after that. The mosquitoes continued to buzz, and the dog ran off after another squirrel.

When they entered their small house, their mother was cooking fish-egg soup over an open fire, adding wild potatoes to the black cast-iron pot. The inside of the house was smoke-filled and crowded, consisting of a single room with two beds mounted along the hewn-log walls. A small table stood under the only window in the cabin. Now, at midday, the table was bare, except for an unlit candle and a box of matches. Two rickety chairs flanked the table’s end, though it served a family of four.

No art adorned the walls, no pictures of any kind, no photographs. There were no books, no fine china, no dolls or other playthings of any sort, no cupboards or toilets or closets. The floor was earthen but clean-swept. A lever-action rifle leaned in a corner below a dozen traps hanging from nails, a box of cartridges on the floor beneath it. On one wall hung three beaver pelts and a great many smaller muskrat and marten furs; on the opposite wall hung two wolf hides. The home smelled of tanned leather and wood smoke. A large bear hide was stretched and nailed on a wall outside, dry and cracked from the sun and wind.

“There you are,” their mother said without turning.

Millie steeled herself for Mother’s reaction.

“I told you to go find your sister a long time ago. What took you so long? I had to gather the firewood and prepare the soup by myself.”

Then Mother looked over her shoulder and saw that Maura was soaking wet.

“What happened to her?” she shouted at Millie.

Millie tried to explain that she couldn’t find Maura at first, that she had finally seen her playing on the other side of the creek, and that when they crossed the creek above the bridge, her little sister had fallen into the water.

“It’s your responsibility to watch after your sister,” Mother said sternly, stirring the pot with a rough, hand-carved wooden spoon. “How many times have I told you that you must take care of her?”

Millie looked at the earthen floor. She couldn’t look at her mother’s face, couldn’t bear to see the disappointment wrinkling her forehead.

Millie hated looking after Maura. She wanted to sew and bead and sit with other older girls as they tanned moose and caribou hides for leather to make moccasins, gossiping all the while about boys. It wasn’t fair that she had to spend so much of her time keeping an eye on Maura.

Sometimes, Millie hated her little sister.

Excerpted from The Great Death by John Smelcer.
Copyright 2009 by John Smelcer.
Published in First Edition—2009 by Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.