Authors: Stan Jones
VILLAGE OF THE
ALSO BY THE AUTHOR
White Sky, Black Ice
with Sharon Bushell
The Spill: Personal Stories from the
Copyright © 2009 by Stan Jones
All rights reserved.
Soho Press, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Jones, Stan, 1947-
Village of the ghost bears / Stan Jones.
ISBN 978-1-56947-606-2 (hardcover)
1. Police—Alaska—Fiction. 2. Arson investigation—
Fiction. 3. Alaska—Fiction. I. Title.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
To the people of Northwest Alaska
THE AUTHOR WISHES TO thank Deputy Fire Marshal Donald C. Cuthbert of the Alaska Department of Public Safety for generously sharing his off-duty time to explain the ins and outs of arson investigation in rural Alaska.
The author also extends his deepest gratitude to Kent Sturgis, who gave the book a professional edit.
“Earth and the Great Weather,” the song in Chapter Twelve, was recorded by the Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen during his Fifth Thule Expedition early in the last century and attributed to an Eskimo woman named Uvavnuk. It is sometimes known as the “Song of Uvavnuk.”
“The ghosts of dead bears have, it is said, their own village far off on the ice of the ocean.”
“ESKIMO” IS THE BEST-KNOWN term for the Native Americans described in this book, but it is not their term. They call themselves “Inupiat,” meaning “the people.” “Eskimo,” a term brought into Alaska by white men, is what certain Indian tribes in eastern Canada called their neighbors to the north. It probably meant “eaters of raw flesh.”
Nonetheless, “Eskimo” and “Inupiat” are used more or less interchangeably in northwest Alaska today, at least when English is spoken, and that is the usage followed in this book.
The Inupiat call their language Inupiaq. A few words in it—those commonly mixed with English in northwest Alaska—appear in the book, along with some local colloquialisms in English. They are listed below, along with pronunciations and meanings. As the spellings vary among Inupiaq–English dictionaries, I have used the most phonetic of the spellings for the benefit of non-Inupiaq readers.
A NORTHWEST ALASKA GLOSSARY
(AH-nuh): grandmother; old lady
(ah-KAH): it stinks!
(AH-la-PAH): it’s cold!
(ah-DEE): Ouch! I hurt!
(ah-TEEK-look): A light summer woman’s parka, usually in a flowered pattern. It has no opening in front, but is pulled on and off over the head.
a small dog
(IN-you-pack): the Eskimo language of northern Alaska; an individual Eskimo of northern Alaska
(IN-you-pat): more than one Inupiaq; the Eskimo people of northern Alaska
(ICK-mick): a form of chewing tobacco made by combining leaf tobacco with the ashes of burnt tree fungus, usually birch
(KIN-ock): crazy; a crazy person
(KUH-knee-chuck): storm shed
(MULL-ick): accompany or follow
(MUCK-tuck): whale skin with a thin layer of fat adhering; a great delicacy in Inupiat country
(nuh-LOCK-me-ock): almost white; an Inupiaq who tries to act white
(nuh-LOCK-me): a white person
(nuh-LOCK-me): more than one white person; white people
(NA-NOOK): polar bear
a lead in the sea ice kept open all winter by winds and currents
(TOX-ee-puck): the color black; an African-American
(OOH-loo): traditional Inupiat woman’s knife, shaped like a slice of pie with the cutting edge at the rim and a handle of horn, ivory or bone at the point
(OOM-ee-ak): whaling boat, made of a wooden frame and covered with the thick, tough hides of walrus or bearded seal
a stripped-down form of English used by older people and residents of small villages in northwest Alaska
VILLAGE OF THE
“SEE WHY THEY CALL it One-Way Lake?”
Cowboy Decker rolled the Super Cub into a slow arc as Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active peered over Grace Palmer’s shoulder. One-Way Lake was a blue teardrop cupped in the foothills of the Brooks Range, with caribou trails lacing the ridges on either side. The outlet, One-Way Creek, lined with stunted black spruce and a few cottonwoods gone gold, threaded south across the rusting fall tundra toward the Isignaq River. At the lake’s head, wavelets licked a fan-shaped talus under a steep slope of gray-brown shale. More caribou trails cut across its face.
Grace was wearing the intercom headset, so Active was obliged to shout at the back of the pilot’s head. “Looks pretty tight,” he said.
“Yep,” Cowboy shouted back. “One way in, one way out. You land toward the cliff and take off going away.”
Active lifted one of the headset cups away from Grace’s ear. “What do you think?”
She shifted on his lap in the cramped back seat of the Super Cub and turned her head toward him. “I’m game. Anything to get out of this damn airplane.”
“Let’s do it,” Active shouted.
Cowboy leveled the wings and flew a half-mile down One-Way Creek in the slanting fall sunlight, then swung back for the approach to the lake. He came in low, floats barely clearing the treetops along the creek, chopped the power, and dropped the Super Cub onto the water, throwing up spray that painted a brief rainbow in the air.
Cowboy slowed to taxiing speed and pointed the nose at a spot on the bank that boasted a tiny gravel beach and a stand of spruce on high, dry ground suitable for camping. The floats crunched into the shallows and Cowboy shut off the engine, ushering in a sudden and deafening silence broken only by the slap of their own wake reaching the shore.
Cowboy popped open the Super Cub’s clamshell doors, letting in the smell of the Arctic—the wet, fertile rot of tundra vegetation, a hint of resin from the spruce, and something else—something sharp and cool that Active associated with autumn in the mountains near sunset. Winter, perhaps, hovering just over the ridges to the north. It was already a couple of weeks late and couldn’t be far off.
Cowboy, wearing jeans and the usual bomber jacket and baseball cap, pulled up his hip waders and jumped into the shallows. He grabbed the nose of a float, tied on a yellow polypropylene line, and dragged the plane forward a few yards, then walked into the trees and snubbed the Super Cub to a spruce. He returned to the beach and surveyed the lake with an air of great satisfaction. “You get into One-Way this time of year, you got caribou walking by; you got grayling in the creek, maybe some Arctic char, maybe some pike in the lake; and you got the best blueberries in the Arctic.” He raised his eyebrows and grinned. “And you got total privacy. There’s only a couple guys can get in here, and you’re looking at half of ’em.”
Not for the first time, Active marveled at the pilot’s intuition, and at his utter lack of discretion in dealing with the insights it brought him. Cowboy might sense that fishing, berry picking, and caribou hunting were the least of their reasons for coming here, but it was none of his business. “We probably oughta get unloaded,” Active said.
He helped Grace climb onto a float, then extricated himself from the torture chamber that is the rear seat of a Super Cub and clambered ashore, stamping and stretching to unkink his muscles.
Cowboy walked onto the float and began emptying the cargo pod under the Super Cub’s belly and the space behind the back seat: food in cardboard boxes, two cased rifles, two fishing rigs, a bright orange Arctic Oven tent, a Woods Yukon single-double sleeping bag, camp stove and fuel, cooking gear, and all the other impedimenta required to support human life in the Arctic.
Active and Grace ferried gear ashore until finally the plane was empty. Cowboy untied the Super Cub, waded into the shallows, walked the plane back until it floated free, then swung the nose around to point across the lake. “Okay, you two, I’ll see you in a week. Enjoy yourselves, huh?” His eyes twinkled behind his steel-frame glasses, and the grin reappeared.
It was not reciprocated.
Cowboy shrugged. “If you run into any trouble, just set off your EPIRB, and somebody’ll be along to check on you.” They nodded, and he climbed into the plane.
He cranked up and taxied to the foot of the cliff, then turned and put on full power, filling the bowl with the roar of his engine as he accelerated down the lake. They watched as the pilot got onto step, lifted one float clear of the water, then the other, and cleared the trees at the outlet.
As the red-and-white plane shrank to a dot in the sky, Active put his arm around Grace’s shoulders, breathing in the scent of lavender. “What do you think?”
She shrugged stiffly. “I don’t know yet.”
He gave her a squeeze. “Don’t sweat it. Good fishin’, good huntin’, good berry-pickin’, good weather, good company—who needs the other?”
She looked at him with a quicksilver flash from the corner of her eye. “Every couple does. Otherwise they’re just. . . .”
“Don’t say that. I hate that word.”
“It’s all right if we’re roommates for a while,” he said. “It’ll happen when it happens.”
“Feel free to shop elsewhere.”
“Thanks, but no thanks.”
She turned into his arms and pulled him down for a kiss. “Thank you,” she said after a long time.
When they separated, he cleared his throat. “I guess we should do something about getting a camp together.”
She nodded. “I’ll organize some dinner if you want to set up the tent.”
She busied herself putting up a Visqueen awning for the camp kitchen while he stamped about the mossy floor of the spruce grove, looking for the flattest spot big enough for the Arctic Oven. He found one a few yards off, requiring only that he dig out a few rocks and pitch them aside. Then he tugged the tent out of its pouch and spread it on the moss as the sun drifted below the ridge and the basin sank into blue shadow.
Later, in the tent, came the conundrum of the Woods single-double. Each half could be zipped into a bag for one person, or the two halves could be zipped together for a couple.
“One bag or two, madam?” he asked without much optimism.
He studied her face in the buttery light of the propane lantern as she turned it over in her mind. The hunger for normalcy showing as always in her eyes, the desire to please him, and the dread that, if she let him take her, he would be transformed somewhere deep in her wounded psyche into her father, who had been the first man to do so.
“One, I think, kind sir, but no guarantees.” Like him, she was playing it light, keeping the escape route open.
He unrolled the bag and zipped it together, stripped down to his shorts and T-shirt, and crawled in. Then he watched her next internal debate: undress with the light on, or off? Put on the long johns, or go for broke in panties and one of his T-shirts?
She looked at him, stuck out her tongue like a twelve-year-old, and closed the valve on the lantern. He listened in a kind of fever-dream as clothes whispered off in the darkness and something was pulled on. Long johns, or a T-shirt?
She slid into the bag, and he felt a smooth, hot thigh against his own. She turned toward him for a kiss. Her lips soft and wet, a flicker of her tongue. But when he slid his hand under her T-shirt, she stiffened, quivering. As usual.
He eased his hand off her breast, stroked her hair, and felt her relax. He kissed her cheek and tasted salt.
“Sorry, baby,” she said.
“All in good time.”
“You know I’ve started seeing Nelda Qivits again.”
She put her hand on his chest, scratched him lightly, sighed, and let the hand trail southward. “Liar.”
“I see things are not altogether all right down there.”
“What are you—”
“I think I could—”
“Mmmm, oh, God. . . .”
“You should register those hands with the FBI,” he said a few minutes later. “They’re lethal weapons.”
“That would explain why I won the shoot-out,” she replied with a giggle.
He laughed out loud, pleased that her joke was dirtier and more original than his own. But how to get into the real issue? “Am I imagining things, or did we just have a breakthrough?”
“Progress, at least.” She shifted to put her head on his chest.
He was silent for a time. “What do you think accounts for it?”
“It’s just different out here. I don’t know.”
“Maybe it’s being out of that house.”
She stiffened again. “Don’t overanalyze it. Leave it be.”
“I withdraw the remark, your honor.”
“Noted.” A long moment passed. Then she relaxed again and rolled toward him a bit. The tent was filled with the smells of lavender, sex, and his own sweat, now cooling.
“It was nice, but it does seem a bit one-sided,” he ventured at length. “Anything I can do to reciprocate?”
She shrugged. “Someday, maybe. For now, your pleasure is my pleasure.”
He flipped back the sleeping bag to cool off and—now that his eyes had adjusted—to admire the curve of her calf thrown across his thigh in the dim light seeping in from the evening sky.
“You know something?” She was serious, suddenly.
“Mmmm?” He was drowsy and hoped this wouldn’t get too deep.
“You’re so polite.”
“Mmmm.” He tried to stay drowsy, thinking they could work this out tomorrow, whatever it was. But “so polite”?
He opened his eyes, resigned to it. “Meaning?”
“I mean, you keep trying, but not too hard. Sometimes I’m not sure how much you want me. With my past, I could understand. . . .”
“Well—I mean, my God, look at you. You’re the most beautiful . . . what man wouldn’t. . . .”
She was silent, slightly tense against his side and chest.
“I—are you saying you want to be taken?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s what I need. Some women do.”
“Sometimes. If it’s someone they trust. They want to be wanted that much.”
“Are you one of those women?”
“I don’t know. I want to be normal, is all. I just don’t know what that is.” Her hand drifted south again. “But I see the idea interests you at least a little?”
“Of course.” He moved the hand back to his chest. “But I’m not the caveman type. For us, what we have is normal, for now.”
“Well, then, have some more of it, on me.” She rolled over and kissed him, hard, her hand moving south again. This time, he let it roam.
ACTIVE AWOKE when the sun got high enough to heat the tent and spent a few minutes studying her face, the foxlike set of her eyes, her hair lying against the honey-dark skin of her neck in the orange half-light.
Finally he eased outside, clothes in hand so as not to wake her by moving around in the tent. Everything looked blue until his eyes adjusted to normal light, and he did a hop-dance on the cold, damp moss as he dressed. At least there was no frost yet. Maybe Indian summer would last out their week at One-Way Lake.
He was scrambling eggs and frying bacon on the camp stove when she came out, yawning and pulling on a jacket against the last of the night chill. “That smells good.” She sniffed hungrily. “What time is it?”
He shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. My watch is in my pack, and that’s right where it’ll stay till Cowboy picks us up.”
“You put away your watch? I’m amazed.”
“I’m smitten,” he said. “And I cook.” He waved a spatula at the eggs and bacon.
“Where you been all my life?” She squatted, stole a rasher out of the pan, and ambled to the shore. She stood looking out over the water, chewing as breakfast popped and sizzled in the skillets. “Nathan, do you think bliss is achievable as a permanent condition? Or do we just have to content ourselves with a random series of singularities and contingencies?”
“Say again, please? In English?”
“I feel helplessly happy. Think it’ll last?”
“I wouldn’t know,” he said.
“Even if it doesn’t, I can’t complain. I slept like a zombie.”
“Me too. I felt oddly drained.”
He dumped the eggs onto their plates, tossed two slices of bread into the skillet, and was turning down the gas when she called out.
“Hey, look at that!” She was pointing across the lake.
He turned and swept his eyes over the water, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. “What—”
“Up on the ridge.”
He scanned the crest and saw them, a string of caribou filing south toward the Isignaq, headed for Jade Portage and the wintering grounds across the river. From this distance, they looked like bugs crawling along the edge of the sky. He was reminded of a phrase he had once heard an old Inupiat hunter use for caribou: earth-lice.
There was indeed some resemblance, Active saw now. Plus, as the old man had pointed out, the Inupiat of long ago had eaten their own body lice as well as earth-lice. Now that everyone was civilized and bathed regularly, the old man had reflected somewhat gloomily, body lice were no longer on the menu, but at least the earth-lice were still plentiful, and as tasty as ever.
Active went back to the tent and fetched his binoculars for a closer look. The males were in full fall regalia, with towering antlers and thick coats of gray-black fur except for the white capes shining practically incandescent in the morning sun. The females ran more to brown and gray, with spindly, twig-like antlers.