One rainy day in June, I found the snowshoe hare you’d named Elizabeth, drowned in the toilet. I never found out what happened to it. All the animals left the house, one way or another, after you were gone. Some whined at the back door until I let them out to disappear into the tall summer grass. The sicker ones died waiting for you to come back. They wouldn’t take any food from my hand, though I tried to help them. They only wanted you.
On your first seal hunt, I’d wanted you to stay home. 1963 was a cold winter, and stormy like it was every year before we finally relocated the town away from the river mouth in ‘69. I didn’t want you out in that cold and I didn’t think you could hold still for as long as it takes to catch a seal, and I told you No. So you waited until I was out late one night at a childbirth, and you listened at Aapa’s knee until he finished lecturing you about what that spate of gas field discoveries would do to our lands. When he was finished, you asked him behind my back if you could come with us on the hunt.
The next Saturday morning I sat on the sled and watched your grandfather show you how to find the thin ice where the seals make their breathing holes. I watched as you knelt next to him on the pack ice in your shapeless coat and sun goggles, two Inupiaq statues on a moose hide rug. Aapa watched the breathing hole, but your eyes were trained on a pressure ridge a few hundred yards away.
I searched your thoughts, wondering what kept your chubby face so somber. You hated it when I did that, but it was my birthright as the last of the Angakkuq healers and anyway, any mother would.
Your mind was silent. Not a strand of your pigtails moved for the three hours it took the seal to come back to that breathing hole. When Aapa speared the seal he let you give it the last drink of water, the ritual mouthful that would allow its spirit return to the sea.
As we lay under our blankets that night and listened to the Qiilabaq brothers’ nightly argument next door, you told me that you had heard the seal’s iġña under the pressure ridge before it came to the breathing hole.
“And what did the seal’s voice say, anaŋa?”
None of your business.
I started to tickle the snottiness out of you, but you slapped my hands away. “Stop it Mama. I can’t hear people’s thoughts like you and Grandpa, but I can hear animals. I don’t think I’m supposed to be an Angakkuq.”
I was going to tell you that it takes longer than seven years of knowing someone to hear their thoughts, but you were already falling asleep.
By the time you were eight, you were collecting real animals the way girls in the lower 48 collected Barbies. I told you to get rid of them half a dozen times but you ignored me. The pregnant, the orphaned, the broken of wing and spirit, they all limped and waddled up to our porch, and you let them all in. I dealt you a half-hearted spanking for disobeying me, but I stopped when I heard your resignation. Even if I send them away they’ll come back, Mama.
After that I let you splint the bones and wrap the wings even though our squealing, cawing, growling house drove me mad. I couldn’t go to the kitchen for a cup of coffee without being scolded by the ptarmigan in a pile of grass behind the trash can. I couldn’t take a shower without feeling immodest in front of the lemmings who perched on the curtain rod and appraised me with cocked heads.
When you were ten, an orphaned fox adopted you. It showed up on the doorstep as if it had an appointment and lived under your bed for years.
One day I leaned in the kitchen doorway and watched your fingers move over the broken leg of an ermine who lay still in your lap. I tried to hear how you knew what to do but your fingers moved on their own. Whatever passed between you and the animals was a mystery to me.
Aapa watched you too, laughing at me. He moved out of the ermine’s way as it limped past him, splinted with one of the driftwood twigs from the bundle you’d added to my healing bag.
You weren’t like me, it was true. You couldn’t hear thoughts. I hoped that, also unlike me, you would get out of Shaktoolik. If your practice on the animals helped you get into veterinary school, you could live in a place that didn’t wait on bush planes for supplies. You’d be paid in real money, not in quarters of caribou meat that would languish in your freezer. You’d live in a state whose doctors weren’t quite as practiced at coaxing babies from the too-slim hips of young girls. You’d get out of Alaska before it dirtied you up and made you unfit for anywhere else. So I put up with peeptom lemmings, and checked my couch cushions for occupants before I sat down.
But you never wanted to leave. Even when I looked into your daydreams in high school, I saw you waiting for the animals to come to you in Shaktoolik, as you’d always done. The only new fixture in your head was the Aniqmiuq boy.
“Just keep your options open,” I pleaded in the fall of your senior year. “Apply to U of A. You can always see the Aniqmiuq boy in the summers.”
“Mom, get out! Isaac is off-limits, okay?”
I knew you liked him, and you dated him until you began to wonder if you loved him too. You loved the way he was as at home in his body as you were in yours, whether he was flying down the basketball court or squatting on the ice over a fishing hole with his father. You decided you didn’t need options—you knew what you wanted. So what if you got pregnant? You wanted a baby anyway. It would get your mother off your back about school. You were too smart for your own good, girl. Too smart and too goddamned stupid.
When I heard what you’d done, you were standing behind me in the kitchen doorway. A kitten mewled as it scaled your leg, but for once you weren’t listening to the animals. Six weeks, you thought, and my fingers swelling up. We can’t live here. Mr. Slopes went back to Maine, could we rent his house? Will Isaac’s dad help us? Will Mom?
I slapped you so hard you fell backward into the sideboard. The kitten skittered to hide underneath it, and the fox yipped from your bedroom.
“You can’t even let me tell you, Mom? You can’t even let me do that?” Your voice cracked and you shook your head.
I was already sorry for hitting you, but you were already yanking your coat from the hook and shaking the lemmings out of it. Then you were out the door.
The lemmings peeked around my feet in the doorway, and the malamute on the couch began to whine. You had passed through the streetlamp’s corona and into the darkness on the other side on your way to the Aniqmiuqs’ before I heard your footsteps pause.
“You know what, Mom? I’ve been able to hear your thoughts since I turned sixteen. But I know without invading your privacy why it’s important to you that I leave Shaktoolik. Why is it, after eighteen years of butting into my thoughts, you still don’t understand what’s important to me?”
You lived with his family after that. For eight months, you wouldn’t let me come near. I hoped you’d come back for the animals’ sakes. They mourned you. They left in a sad, slow exodus. By your seventh month, they were all gone but for the fox under your bed. I missed them almost as much as I missed you.
Sandra Aniqmiuq called when there was trouble with your labor. She said you’d been having contractions for thirteen hours and your water still hadn’t broken. She told me she had wanted to call sooner, but that you begged her not to.
When I arrived at the Aniqmiuqs’ house, that ugly little box that matched every other house in Shaktoolik, thirty head of caribou were crowded around the front window. The glass was too steamed up to see inside. The caribou stood and waited, their flicking tails the only movement on the silent, frozen street.
The family parted as I came into your room and they obeyed when I sent them out—though the Aniqmiuq boy wouldn’t go until you nodded. You were ashen, lank-haired, and covered in sweat. I wanted to kiss your head and your eyelids and your fingertips. I wanted to sit on the bed and rock you, but there wasn’t time.
“Mama,” you said. The fear in your eyes would have struck me down where I stood if my decades as an Angakkuq hadn’t already set my hands into motion.
“What do I do?” Even as the terror brightened your eyes, your fierceness hemmed it in.
“Be still,” I said, “and hold on.”
I checked you. There was the baby’s head, and there was its neck, the cord wrapped around it. I didn’t kid myself that thought-reading or healing songs would help you now.
“I’m going to do a perineal cut,” I said. You nodded.
I cut you as carefully as I could. I brought my poor granddaughter into the world, but she was blue–already gone when she arrived. Too much blood came with her. Your daughter was a big girl. Her mass of slick hair shone like the fur of your first seal when you lay next to it on the ice.
She’d torn you just inside. You’d been bleeding for a long time, but her head had blocked it until now. I wrapped her in a blanket and gave her to you. I turned away as your put your lips to hers, and tried not to hear what you were thinking to her.
You must have seen my head turn, because in an act of forgiveness you spoke to her aloud. “I wanted so many things for you,” you whispered.
I worked and worked, stitching you up. I’d almost gotten the tubing set up for a make-shift transfusion from my own arm when you told me to stop.
I’m going, Mama. You looked out the window, listening to something I didn’t hear.
I suppose we were both right. Your spirit was too big for Shaktoolik, but you were never meant to leave it. One by one, the caribou filed out of the yard.
Some evenings like tonight, the fox sits on my lap in the dark living room. The night you died, she moved into my bedroom.
Over the last six months, animals have started to show up at my door again. They aren’t looking for you. They act like you’re already here, and they heal almost as well as if you really were. They let me come near enough now to feed them a bit of chewed meat or some milk.
I twine the fox’s tail around my fingers. Her fur is turning white again. The snow will come soon, and it will get quiet and lonely in this town, but not as lonely as it was before your animals came back. Did you send them to show you’d forgiven me? Or are you here somewhere, just out of sight? I still marvel at the secrets a girl will keep from her mother.
When she’s not writing fiction, Sarah Beaudette blogs about nomadic family life at TheLuxpats.com. She and her husband and son have lived in Luxembourg, South Africa, and are currently in Hungary working on a travel gear eco-store called Nomadica. Sarah was recently named the winner of NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge 2016.
Special thanks to Abby Kerr. Abby beta read “Leaving Shaktoolik” from Shaktoolik. Thank you for your help, Abby!
I love this beautiful, heart-rending story!
Sarah, you are a fabulous talent. I am very proud of you. – Steve Sibra
Perfect and beautiful.
Beautiful story – completely deserved of its success.