For the first time this year, my fingers are smeared with cottonwood sap. It’s got a great smell, like ginger and fresh-mowed-grass. I found a few buds on my walk this evening and rolled them between my fingertips to release the aroma and squish their green insides out. What a pretty color, green!
The Koyukuk in front of Huslia was mostly iced in on Saturday (I went for a long bird-hike; among other things, I saw my first robin of the year, identified a white-crowned-sparrow by its song, and watched a northern pintail land in a pool of open water by the far bank. Yeah!) but by Sunday it was wide open. There’s a bit of a jam at the bend downriver from the village, but it doesn’t seem to be damming the flow the way the one on the Tanana did this weekend.
I was on the phone with my friend in Manley Hot Springs on Friday night when he heard water running somewhere. He lives in a dry cabin, so that’s a pretty notable oddity. “I’ll call you back in a sec, I’ve gotta go see what this is.” He called back a little while later, and by the time we hung up, water was rising almost half-an-inch every ten minutes in his driveway. That community is still mostly flooded–water is up over roads and in people’s homes–everyone is fine, but Manley hasn’t seen flooding like that for almost fifty years.
Spring. It’s a mess.
Almost every day now, during our walks, Silna drags moose scapulae out of the woods where folks dumped them last fall and gnaws on them. Normally, I can trust her to stay close while we’re walking, but all bets are off when she comes across something stinky and gross to chew. There was some confusion on Sunday when I couldn’t find her for a while. I got smart after hiking around looking blindly for half an hour and followed a raven cawing from the top of a spruce tree on the riverbank. Sure enough, Silna was sprawled on the moss below, savoring her disgusting treasure. Today, she tried to take one along on our walk. Pretty adorable–a moose scapula is so big that even with her head held high, one end bangs against her front legs and almost drags on the ground.
Back in November, Alan and I went to the white mountains together. We’d been broken up about a week by then. We shot two caribou, gutted them in the field, then brought them back to my place and spent the next week doing meat chores together. We filled bag after bag with roasts and steaks and chunks and vacuum sealed and froze them all. The way things work out, sometimes there aren’t enough chunks to fill a bag to capacity, so we ended up with one bag labeled “caribou chunks, single serving” and that bag ended up in my freezer.
Every time I look at it I come a little unglued.
Breaking up looks so different every time it happens. In this case, it’s meant not much has changed except the invisible stuff. The feelings, the plans, the intimacy. We still talk often and do things together (or we did, before I moved to Huslia). My unfreezable stuff is still stashed at his house, and he still plans on leaving his dog with me for the summer when he goes to Kodiak. “It’s amicable” I can say if I want to, “we’re still friends.”
And all that is true. Only Alan’s happier now, and I’m not. Breaking up was my idea, and it was the right choice, but I started the conversation because I suspected his feelings for me had changed and I didn’t think he had the nerve, and I guess I was right. Sucks not to be wanted. And it just keeps on sucking.
I woke up in the middle of last night with the dog licking tears off my cheeks. I can’t remember the dream, but I still feel desolate in that familiar way this morning. It’s not a real mystery.
I’m smart enough to know that it’s not really Alan making me feel that way. It’s me, it’s where I’m at. I’m ready to find a long-long-term partnership, and losing a serious relationship just as I’ve come to that realization adds sizzle to the sting. To add a little salt, I’m here in Huslia, population 300, so there isn’t exactly a queue of eligible fellas lined up around my block. They’re scarce even in population centers, to be fair: I don’t go for the kind of men who like population centers.
Last night after dinner, Silna’s ears perked up and she went to the door, listening. I turned off my music and went to the window. Shrieks and giggles, whoops and hollers: right outside, a group of kids in winter gear were playing on the school playground. I opened the door and Silna charged over, tail helicoptering wildly. She wasn’t so sure about the kids on the first cookie night of the year, but when they came over again this Thursday, she couldn’t get enough: she played tag and soccer with them, and they gave her treats and tummy-rubs and played chase and keep-away: she was in Silna heaven, and for an hour after they left she crooned and threw her soccer ball at me relentlessly, trying to get me to be half as much fun as they were. Last night, I watched from the doorway as she leaped to the top of the slide and licked the kid at the top, then bounded to the monkey bars to investigate a swinging child’s boots. She was so visibly, overwhelmingly happy that something in my chest almost cracked. I love her. I love seeing her that way. After a few minutes I put on my boots and went outside too. It’s been a long time since I played tag in a schoolyard in the dark; it’s been a long time since I’ve laughed that hard.
I love it here. I love my job and I love the way this place feels around me. I love kids and I love cookie night. I’m almost certainly going to sign a contract for next year, and I’m almost certain to be single as long as I stay in the bush.
So this new loneliness stings because I know it probably isn’t temporary. I am where I want to be, and it looks like that means being alone. That isn’t what I want, exactly, but it is what I want, mostly, so I don’t really know what to do about it.
Cookie nights; Silna-joy; caribou chunks, single serving.
Today I’m going to find a new acquaintance’s house. She invited me to come by and start beading some glove-tops.
Flying out of Fairbanks yesterday I got completely disoriented. I kept scrubbing the plane’s window to melt the frozen fog so that I could peer down at the landscape. Reflexively, I looked for familiar hills and riverbends. I found none. This is new territory.
Just now I got back from my first walk around Huslia. It was my first and last chance to walk in daylight, since I’ll be teaching all week and leaving on Saturday. I walked around the school a little and bumped into some kids who filled me in.
“The sixth grade boys are kind of mischief,”
“Thanks for letting me know. I’ll be okay though. They’re not my first mischief boys.”
“If you yell at them, they’ll just make fun of you.”
“Good to know.”
I’ll challenge any of the boys who messes with me to a wood-chopping contest after school. That should do it. Or at least get someone’s wood chopped.
The girls were worried about me being out in the cold, too. “Your eyes are freezing!” Just the usual: a little ice in my lashes and on my hat. It’s maybe thirty below, but it was sweet of them to worry.
“I’m doing okay. I want to walk all around the village to learn my way.”
“Well don’t be afraid to take breaks. It’s pretty cold out.”
They’re awful sweet.
Here’s what jumped out at me on my walk: there are birch trees here, and a couple street signs (at about chest height, since they’re mostly not for cars), and people tow wooden basket sleds behind their sno-gos, not just plastic ones. The riverbank is really tall. I stood on it to watch the last sliver of the sun set over the river. Wish: May tonight’s be the first of many Koyukuk sunsets I witness.
There’s something either really silly or really profound about how different my first observations of Huslia were from the ones I made in my first weeks in Venetie. I guess we notice the things that are most different from what we’re used to.
It feels really good to be back in a village. It’s like a clamp came off my chest as soon as I got off the plane. Everything just seems to move slower in the bush. I’ve missed it. And that confirms something I already knew: this is it for me. This is how I want to live.
I’m also, kinda weirdly, in the lap of luxury. For this week, while my unit is getting painted, the district has me staying in this massive three-bedroom apartment. There’s running water (and laundry!) and baseboard heat with a backup blazeking. I keep finding myself standing around with no idea what to do because I’m used to so much time going to chores. For now, I’m not missing the chores, but I will soon. It’s kinda hard to sleep in a house that stays this warm. And stuffy. I can’t believe I miss the drafts in the yurt, but I do. Gosh, am I good at finding something to complain about or what? I love having a bathtub though.
Last night was my first night in Huslia, and just as I was getting settled in there came a knock at the door. When I opened it, I found four young girls standing on the top step.
“Hi!” I said.
“Hi,” they said, “are you a new teacher?”
“Yep, sixth grade.”
“ooh, we’re in sixth grade,” one girl gestured to one of the others. They were full of questions. “Do you have any kids?”
“a dog, but she’s not here right now.”
“I have a dog,” one girl said.
“we have a class pet!” said another.
“Yes, I met Sammy the Hamster.”
“how long are you staying?” They all quieted down to find out.
“I’ll be here until the end of the school year,”
“Oh good!” said one girl, “you seem nice.”
“Howabout the rest of your life?” said the smallest one.
I think it’s time to dust off the mixing bowl and bring back cookie night.
The girls asked for a sleepover, but I don’t think I’m ready to commit to that in my first week.
When I saw them again at the end of my walk today, one of them asked when they could come for cookies. I said I’d talk to the principal, and if she says yes we can do it on Thursday. “I’ll bring chocolate chips,” said the ringleader.
I accepted a job in Huslia yesterday.
I’ll start December 13th. Grade 6, eleven kids. I couldn’t be more stoked to get back into a classroom. I’ve missed children a lot these last two and a half years, and 6th grade is a great fit for me.
I also feel weird about it. I want to start finding my way to someplace settled and permanent, and starting over in a new community where I don’t know if I’m likely to land for keeps feels like a step in the wrong direction. It also feels like a betrayal of the kids. Teacher turnover is such a huge problem in rural Alaska, and I hate to go someplace knowing that I’m likely to eventually leave. I guess that’s the nice thing about 6th grade, though: I’ll be with these eleven kids through the end of the year, and they’ll move on over the summer. If I do too, it’s not as big of a betrayal as it would for students I’d work with again next fall. Still.
And who knows? Maybe it’ll be just the ticket. Maybe I’ll never want to leave.
Here’s what I want, long term: I want to live in an Alaskan community that has more use for snowmachines and four-wheelers and boats and planes than for cars. I want to be surrounded by people I can love and who can love me. I want to live in my own home, not in teacher housing or a rental cabin. I want to have babies and to believe that they are safe in the homes of their friends and my neighbors. I want trees, caribou, mountains and rivers. I want to work hard for the things that sustain me, and in working to offer my gratitude.
Tangent: Speaking of gratitude, I have decided I’m going to be a gort — a meadow vole — (the one in my yard is named “Gort” so therefore all meadow voles are gorts) for halloween. I can make a costume with my brown overalls and my grandma’s mink stole and some bits of fur from my sewing box for ears. I’ll draw on whiskers and add a short tail and voila. DIY Halloween. Down with capitalism and plastic from China.
Here’s what I need, short term: a job that pays better than a graduate assistantship, health insurance that doesn’t suck. A dentist appointment.
So there’s some tension between what I want and what I need.
And maybe these aren’t the right questions to ask anyway–what do I want, what do I need. Maybe I should be asking who needs me. The sixth grade job has been posted since summer, so that’s an easy answer. And who wants me? Well, I interviewed as a backup in case they couldn’t find a substitute by the holidays (I figured I’d feel less bad about subbing, so I put myself on the list), and by the end of the interview YKSD was ready to offer me a contract. So.
So I’ll fly out in December and stay until the beginning of break, getting to know kids and families and the staff at the school. And then I’ll come back to Fairbanks, put my treehouse-home to bed for the time being, pack my things, and fly back to Huslia with Alan and Silna just in time to go dance at the hall for New Years. Alan will stay a week or so, and then he’ll come back to Fairbanks.
I’ll bring the Bravo. At first I thought maybe I’d leave it here, but when I mentioned that idea to Geoff he laughed out loud. “You’re just going to want to borrow someone else’s sno-go then.” And he’s probably right. And maybe in the summer, if I decide to stay, I’ll make a trip of it and take Lyra down the Yukon. She’s never been downriver of Tanana, and it’s a fine thing to have a boat in the fall.