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Excerpt from Finding Jade Mountain

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After You Read This Sample              Chapter 1 - Sinaaq, Alaska                       

December 10, 1977: No one in California believed me when I told them breath freezes in the Arctic, but even tears turn to ice within seconds. Here in the Arctic, the Ikagnug Sea, too, is frozen, and it stretches as far as I can see, all the way to Russia, most likely.            

Bundling against such cold, Mom and I plunged into afternoon darkness toward the sea. We waited with a crowd of Inuits as the bush pilot and Hector, a man no one liked much, tossed cases of Pilot Boy Bread, soda, and ammunition onto the ice.            

Dressed in a black jumpsuit, Hector resembled a shadow as he made a big show of singling us out. “Teacher Donna Atwood?”  He pretended he couldn’t tell us apart before hurling Mom a bundle of magazines and letters. His newly capped teeth gleamed like a constellation. “Hey, Allison Atwood. You only gots one letter.” He held it high, making me jump like a string puppet.            

He lowered his arm, and I grabbed my letter. The postmark told everything. Dana Point, California. Dad had written.                       

“It’s getting colder,” Mom said. “Let’s go back.”            

Tomorrow, I told myself, I’ll walk to the little Eskimo store and buy myself a ticket to Kotzebue. Once there, I’ll book a flight to Anchorage and then board a plane from Anchorage to home. In between flights, I’ll have to sleep on airport benches, eat airport food, and wash up in airport bathrooms. Nothing about getting into or out of the Arctic was easy, especially with unpredictable weather and making flight connections.            

Dad wrote, and maybe I could talk Mom into leaving Alaska, too.            

Dana Point, California and Sinaaq, Alaska, polar opposites, antonyms, like Mom and Dad who didn’t get along any more.                      

My big plan was to get Mom home so we could be a family again, but so far it hadn’t worked out. Everything about the Arctic was big – big hope, big land, big weather and yet my life had shriveled to a small ache in my heart.  
                             
As we trudged through big snow that glistened as if sprinkled with glitter, slivers of cold slid up my parka cuffs. Head down, I braced against another gust of wind and staggered past the row of tiny huts at the edge of the sea.            

The older people in Sinaaq claimed the Arctic was changing. They insisted ice rotted earlier, and animals could no longer find food. Some said this warming trend might cause Sinaaq to drop into the sea one day.            

The warming of the Arctic was another one of their myths. Everything was the same, exactly like yesterday and the day before – cold, white, and frozen.            
Facing seaward, huts leaned as if pushed by a giant hand, but it was really the constant wind that made everything tip northwest. An abandoned kayak filled with snow and geometric ice shapes along the shore resembled a stretch of beach frozen in time.            

We climbed the long slope that took us from the sea. Mom’s flashlight swayed to cast a frail glow, and I stumbled on a piece of driftwood jutting from the snow.  In that instant, past and present came together. “Oolik?” I couldn’t believe my eyes. “Look, Mom! It’s her.”            

The wind snatched my words. Mom never knew Oolik. She had only caught a glimpse of her as our plane rose from the ice.            

Real or make-believe? When I knelt down, sure enough, one foot had plunged into the snow bank and the other dragged, useless and dead, like an old log. Only Oolik made tracks like that.                      

Mom motioned for me to hurry.  As I arose, wind swept snow across the footprints, changing the pattern. Evidence gone, I doubted the footprints were ever there. Another trick of the imagination.                      

This black and white world played such tricks, mixing light and shadow. I turned and, for a minute, I thought I saw Oolik standing on a slope, a bent, twisted shape resembling a small tree.            

“Hurry, Allison,” Mom called.            

Nothing could be for certain in the Arctic, especially during the dark months. Reality and fantasy mixed together. I lived in a dream world, half awake, half asleep.            

Dogs chained to stakes outside huts snarled, ears erect, and then they stood over their mounds of snow to bare fangs.  As always, we kept our distance. Arctic dogs never came inside. We knew better than to try to pet them.

Going beyond salmon drying racks, we turned toward the school. The size and shape of an abandoned boxcar, the lighted windows guided us like stars to our living quarters.                      

We climbed the icy steps to find our outer door stuck fast. In only half an hour, the latch had frozen. With hands so numb I hardly knew if I held the crowbar or not, I swung. It took several tries to finally break the ice and free the latch.           
Then we plunged through the crowded cunnychuck (our enclosed porch) and tripped over snowshoes and blocks of ice brought from inland ponds.             Mom and I slammed into the heated air like linebackers. Scarves fell away as we shrugged out of parkas and held our hands over the oil stove.            

“Dad wrote! Did you see?”             

“It took him long enough,” Mom said.            

As feeling returned in a thousand prickling needles, I winced and shook my hands as if to dry them. “Just think, the mall, movies, hamburgers, and a real shower and toilet for a change. Oh, Mom, let’s just go home!”            

She didn’t answer, but I knew she’d say it was the signed contract more than the money that kept her here. My fingers finally thawed enough to grasp the letter, but I had to tear the envelope with my teeth. Mom didn’t look up as she scattered mail on the table. “Your father isn’t exactly reliable.”            

I managed to shake open the folded message. As usual, it was scrawled on a page torn from a yellow legal tablet and looked like it was written in a hurry.                     

Hi Allison, Got your letter about coming home for Christmas. Unfortunately, I’ve already booked a cruise and can’t change plans. Tahiti! Imagine that. Should be a blast.Will tell you all about it. Hope you’re doing okay in all that ice and snow. Say hello to your mother. Will write more next time. Love, Dad                                 
Tears heated my eyes, but I never cried in the Arctic. Outside, tears froze. Inside, Mom would see.

Mom’s right eye twitched. “Sorry, honey. I know this is no place for a fourteen-year-old girl. We’ll go home in June. I promise.”           

“By June, I won’t even be me.”            

“What do you mean by that?”           

Something had already changed, something about Mom, and something about me.  Living in such cramped quarters had brought us to the raw edge of patience.            

Mom pressed the corners of her eyes with her thumb and forefinger. “I told you not to count on your father.”                       

“But it’s Christmas.”                      

“Divorce is hard on the bank account.”           

“We should at least talk things over.”            

“Stop trying to fix everything, Allison.”            

Feet thundered on the porch, spoiling any hope of discussion. The bare bulb hanging from a cord swayed back and forth, spitting sparks.  Mom glanced at me. “Hector again,” she said with a sigh. “Tell him we can’t visit tonight.”            

When I yanked the door open, Hector was nowhere in sight. Instead, a crowd of bundled Eskimos stood in front of me, frosted air fogging from woolen scarves. Wolverine ruffs, big fur that encircled parka coat hoods, made the crowd loom even larger. Never had so many visitors come at once.

“Visit? We visit?”            

“Joe?” I looked at my only friend. His grandparents, Iluak and Nora, stood behind him, but there were others, at least a dozen, maybe more, and Sekinek, the oldest man in the village had come, too, and he’d never visited, not even once.            

Breath rose in clouds and snow spun from shoulders like dust. An odor of animal skins, chewing tobacco, and unwashed hair soured the room. Sekinek, bent and bowlegged, sealskin mukluks dropping piles of snow on the dirty linoleum floor, led the way and sat at one end of the lumpy sofa. Joe’s grandfather, Iluak, took the other end with Joe at his feet, and all the others crowded around until there was no place left to sit.                     

Children clung to the skirts of their mother’s fur-lined kuspuk dresses. Babies slept in parka hoods. Men looked past us with narrowed eyes.                      

Even though Joe’s grandmother, Nora, had almost no teeth, she always laughed, and she laughed now as she stood behind the sofa with the other women who remained bundled, flowered bandannas tied under chins. Men loosened their heavy parkas and pulled off beaver mittens as if they planned to stay a long time.                      

Finally Sekinek, the most respected man in the village, cleared his throat and prepared to speak. “Teacher Donna gots mail.”            

Mom blinked before nodding to the unopened mail on the table. “Uh, yes, thank goodness, the mail plane came at last.”           

Children giggled. Women whispered behind their hands. Joe avoided my eyes and fiddled with the strings on the high sealskin mukluks his grandmother had made him.           

No one offered to sell us a bone bracelet or a fossil found in the permafrost or wool socks knit from colorful yarn. No one brought out an ulu - a woman’s knife - made from an old saw blade with a driftwood handle.           

Joe wore a blue headband with his Eskimo name, “Piquk,” in red yarn. Again I tried to catch his eye, but he was distracted by the sound of Hector’s snowmobile outside. The noise drilled a hole through the silence, and I knew Joe would rather be racing on the frozen sea.                      

Mom took a deep breath, and then coughed into her fist. “Well, thank you all for coming, but I’ve got some things to do.”           

No one took the hint. Not a single person budged. They remained wedged as if to stay forever.            

Finally, Sekinek raised a hand and spoke in slow hushed tones. “Our people only Iñupiat Eskimo,” he said. “Life hard for simple people in Sinaaq.” 
                   
In the silence that followed, Mom coughed again. “Well, it’s getting late and I need to prepare for school tomorrow.” She brushed her hands together as if dusting off chalk.  “So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to –”           

She stopped mid-sentence, losing her train of thought as she often did these days. She wrapped her arms around herself and stepped back. Suddenly, I missed my mother even though she was standing right next to me.            

Sekinek placed his hands on his knees. “Bad spirits come to Sinaaq.” He looked at Mom and me, not at the floor as was the custom, and it made me think we were the bad spirits he was talking about.            

When I saw Joe withhold a grin, I figured something was up. Then he nodded to the cluster of women. As they shifted in an effort to reposition babies, there was a shuffling, and during the commotion I saw her.            

“Oolik!” Even with the fur ruff covering her face, I recognized her by the rigid way she held herself.  So it hadn’t been my imagination. She’d come all the way to Sinaaq. “Ohmigosh, Mom, it’s Oolik!” As I tried to see over and around the crush of women, Oolik again became lost in the crowd.            

Sekinek leaned forward, elbows on his knees, jaw bulging with tobacco. He chewed, mouth going round and round, and then he spit into an empty soda can in his hand. “People say white girl give Oolik talk-signs. Now she think she go to school in Sinaaq maybe.”                      

Everyone looked at Mom, the one and only teacher in the village since she had the final say about such things.            

Before Mom answered, Joe laughed. “That girl gots funny ears. Big joke maybe.”            

Everyone else laughed, too.                      

“Oolik’s deaf,” I said. “She can’t hear.”            

Mom stepped up like a pinch hitter, raised her chin and her most courteous, schoolteacher voice. “The child is certainly welcome to come to school.”            
She said this without ever having seen Oolik, of course, and Nora gasped with surprise. Children wrinkled their flat noses, and Sekinek’s eyebrows shot up. No one expected it to be so easy to enroll Oolik in school.            

“Teacher Donna say so?” Sekinek asked.            

“That’s right,” Mom said.           

Nora wiped tears of disbelief from her eyes. “How that good-for-nothing, worthless funny girl ever go to school?”            

She had a point.  Oolik wasn’t like a regular person even though I’d taught her to sign while in her village. My sign language, learned when I lived in California and helped at the after-school clinic for the deaf, was sloppy and partly made up.           

Mom tried to smile. “We’ll be happy to have this girl at school.”            

“Ahhhhh,” the women sighed.            

Sekinek leaned back with what seemed great relief. He grinned, showing his worn-down teeth. Everyone mumbled together, speaking Iñupiat with a few English words mixed in and, of course, the joke was on Mom. She had no idea what she was in for, not in the least.            

People started talking, shifting positions, juggling babies and, in the jostling, someone shoved Oolik forward. Arms flailing, she tripped over Joe’s mukluks, staggered a moment, arms out as if on a high wire, and then sprawled, face down, at Mom’s feet.            

“Ohhhhh,” the women sighed.            

No one reached out to help. No one wanted to touch someone like Oolik. Mom knelt, and when the huge fur-trimmed hood spilled back, she took one look and dropped Oolik like a hot potato. “Oh! Oh…my!”            

One side of Oolik’s face was perfectly normal while the other slid like bad icing to her jaw so that she had a distorted, mismatched appearance. The eye on the bad side, grotesquely huge and watery, reflected like a mirror.                       
When she moved, Oolik dragged her useless leg, the good one a crutch as she vaulted forward. Ten years old, maybe eleven by now, she had been an outsider in her own village, the inland settlement where I’d been an outsider, too.                      

Mom stared the way she told me never to stare.            

Nora clucked her tongue. “Oolik useless girl. Not sew skins. Not get water. Not good for nothing maybe.”            

People in Oolik’s village had said the same thing. Both outsiders, we got along.                      

Sekinek spit tobacco juice into the soda can. “Too bad that girl gots no money neither. Stowaway.  White people buy her maybe.”             

“Stowaway?” Mom said. “You mean this child came on the mail plane?” 
                   
Sekinek wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Mail never come if girl not pay. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Too bad.”                       

“How much does she owe?” I asked.                      

Sekinek shrugged. “Fifty maybe.”            

“I’ve got fifty.”            

Mom raised a hand. “Allison, no. We mustn’t let these people take advantage of us. You keep that money.”            

As Oolik watched, I opened my right hand, making a sweeping motion in an arc to the left, palm up, the sign for “welcome.” Avoiding that monstrous eye and concentrating on her good side, I pointed to Oolik, to myself, and then clapped my hands two times. “You. Me. School.”            

The good side of Oolik’s face lifted.            

“Thirty?” I asked Sekinek.            

He shifted and pursed his mouth. “Forty.”            

“Allison, you’re not responsible for this child’s debt,” Mom protested.   
                           
I walked over, took two twenties from the cardboard box on the table, and held them up for Sekinek to see. “Forty.”                      

He slapped his knees, got to his feet, and took the money. “Okay, good idea. White girl pay forty.  Oolik go to school now.”            

Still chewing and carrying the soda can, Sekinek walked out on bent legs. Joe smirked as he went past, and I felt like the biggest sucker in the world.   
                            
After everyone left, Mom lifted her hands. “Well? What about her?”            

I looked at Oolik and wondered what I’d gotten myself into. She formed a V with her fingers, motioned in and out, to and from her chest. It meant “us two” or “both of us.”    
        

“What’s she saying?” Mom asked.            

I shrugged. “I guess she can stay in my room.”             

“Not on your life. There’s no way that child’s staying here with us. We’ll have no privacy. Where will she sleep?”            

Oolik smelled bad.  Her sealskin mukluks were worn, her parka filthy, and strands of stringy blue-black hair hung inside her collar. She couldn’t be cleaned up or fixed up to look like the compact, short-legged, moon-faced girls Mom thought so adorable.            

Oolik was Oolik, and I’d bought her.   


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