Excerpt from Finding Jade Mountain
Chapter 1 - Sinaaq, Alaska
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
wrote, and maybe I could talk Mom into leaving Alaska, too.
Point, California and Sinaaq, Alaska, polar opposites, antonyms, like Mom and
Dad who didn’t get along any more.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
wind snatched my words. Mom never knew Oolik. She had only caught a glimpse of
her as our plane rose from the ice.
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.
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
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.
Allison,” Mom called.
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.
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.
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
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
we plunged through the crowded cunnychuck (our enclosed porch) and tripped over
snowshoes and blocks of ice brought from inland ponds.
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.
wrote! Did you see?”
“It took him long enough,” Mom said.
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!”
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.”
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.
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
heated my eyes, but I never cried in the Arctic. Outside, tears froze. Inside,
Mom would see.
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.”
June, I won’t even be me.”
do you mean by that?”
had already changed, something about Mom, and something about me. Living in such cramped quarters had
brought us to the raw edge of patience.
pressed the corners of her eyes with her thumb and forefinger. “I told you not
to count on your father.”
“But it’s Christmas.”
is hard on the bank account.”
should at least talk things over.”
trying to fix everything, Allison.”
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.”
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?”
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.
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.
clung to the skirts of their mother’s fur-lined kuspuk dresses. Babies slept in
parka hoods. Men looked past us with narrowed eyes.
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.
Sekinek, the most respected man in the village, cleared his throat and prepared
to speak. “Teacher Donna gots mail.”
blinked before nodding to the unopened mail on the table. “Uh, yes, thank
goodness, the mail plane came at last.”
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.
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.
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.
took a deep breath, and then coughed into her fist. “Well, thank you all for
coming, but I’ve got some things to do.”
one took the hint. Not a single person budged. They remained wedged as if to
Sekinek raised a hand and spoke in slow hushed tones. “Our people only Iñupiat
Eskimo,” he said. “Life hard for simple people in Sinaaq.”
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 –”
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.
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.
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.
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
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
looked at Mom, the one and only teacher in the village since she had the final
say about such things.
Mom answered, Joe laughed. “That girl gots funny ears. Big joke maybe.”
else laughed, too.
deaf,” I said. “She can’t hear.”
stepped up like a pinch hitter, raised her chin and her most courteous,
schoolteacher voice. “The child is certainly welcome to come to school.”
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.
Donna say so?” Sekinek asked.
right,” Mom said.
wiped tears of disbelief from her eyes. “How that good-for-nothing, worthless
funny girl ever go to school?”
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.
tried to smile. “We’ll be happy to have this girl at school.”
the women sighed.
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.
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.
the women sighed.
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!”
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.
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.
stared the way she told me never to stare.
clucked her tongue. “Oolik useless girl. Not sew skins. Not get water. Not good
for nothing maybe.”
in Oolik’s village had said the same thing. Both outsiders, we got along.
spit tobacco juice into the soda can. “Too bad that girl gots no money neither.
Stowaway. White people buy her
“Stowaway?” Mom said. “You mean this
child came on the mail plane?”
wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Mail never come if girl not pay.
Not tomorrow. Not next week. Too bad.”
much does she owe?” I asked.
shrugged. “Fifty maybe.”
raised a hand. “Allison, no. We mustn’t let these people take advantage of us.
You keep that money.”
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.”
good side of Oolik’s face lifted.
I asked Sekinek.
shifted and pursed his mouth. “Forty.”
you’re not responsible for this child’s debt,” Mom protested.
walked over, took two twenties from the cardboard box on the table, and held
them up for Sekinek to see. “Forty.”
slapped his knees, got to his feet, and took the money. “Okay, good idea. White
girl pay forty. Oolik go to school
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.
everyone left, Mom lifted her hands. “Well? What about her?”
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.”
she saying?” Mom asked.
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?”
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.
was Oolik, and I’d bought her.