Drip, drop, drip.
It was warm today. Chunks of snow hurled themselves over the eaves and hurtled past my classroom windows at startling intervals all day long. Icicles drizzled melt water into the pitted snow below.
Yesterday, Shannon and Terri shanghaied me after school and took me to Big Lake on Shannon’s new snow-go. I was sandwiched between them, my cold face buried in the fur ruff on Shannon’s jacket. The narrow, icy trail slipped and skittered under the roaring snowmachine, and I felt my knees grip harder, skittish and too-cautious as always.
When we got there, I looked up and around at the expanse of white and blue and space in every direction. I could feel the mountains yarding on my heartstrings across the ice. I have to get up there, once at least, before I leave the village for good. I should have taken pictures of the mountains: If I had, you could probably see the words “come hither” stenciled in the sky by their ridges. I did, I think, or maybe it was just a whisper from inside the part of me that loves to want just for wanting’s sake, and lingers, grinning, on windy precipices, tasting salt.
I opened the window over my sink wide today and let the sound of the ice and snow, first slipping and scraping on the metal roof, then falling in white sheets to smash on the ground in a snow-cone splash, slip into my kitchen over the log-deep sill.
It’s been an exhausting week. The shattering ice confused with the chattering of the girls and made a little white noise for me rummage in to find a smile. They mixed their own cookies while I made a pot of curry and arbitrated disputes over who would get to choose a cookie first. They laughed and left their wet snowpants in puddles on the floor and hung their grubby socks to dry on the ledge of my open window and tracked muddy prints all over the floor and made me happy.
Yesterday evening, C came by to tell me that her sister wouldn’t be able to make it to school today. P would have to stay home and babysit the four-year-old so that their auntie could make it to work. We walked over to the school in the dusk light and got P’s math book and independent reading so that she wouldn’t fall behind. “I will never have kids” said C. “It isn’t fair”
The village is grieving and drinking and grieving. A young man passed away last weekend, and everyone is reeling. I knew the man, who used to cook for the school. He played country music too loud and grinned and danced along when I’d bop by in the middle of my crowd of kids, mouthing the words and playing mini air guitar. One of my boxes wound up at his house, and I met his newborn baby and his wife on one of my first days in the village.
The kids have been sullen and sleepless. No one is taking this well, and those whose families live hard have retreated into silence to bear the living harder.
Today, the body was returned to the village. Nearly everyone met the plane at the airport. My class chose to go, and we rode packed in the back of the red school pickup, bending our heads against the wind. We hopped out of the truck and joined the crowd of people standing in the melt-glittery white light of morning. Everyone looked up as the fat plane ripped the blue sky open overhead. When the long wooden box was lowered out of the plane, the young men lifted it and began to walk the mile or so back to the village. The rest of us followed on foot, the fourwheelers and snow-gos growling behind. As one man tired, another stepped in to take his place bearing the dead. A skin drum beat time all the way to the village, and a man’s husky singing voice rose above the footfalls and engines and quiet talk of the crowd. Halfway home, an obviously intoxicated man stumbled into M, a severely autistic high schooler. M looked at me with silent, confused, helpless big brown eyes and tried to step away. Another boy dodged behind me until the man fell behind us.
The men of the village carried Earl right up the steps of the church and through the front door. Everyone stood inside in winter coats. After a few short prayers, a murmured amen, everyone left. I took my students back to class.
Yesterday, one girl wrote in her writing journal that the brilliant, multicolored northern lights of this past week have comforted her. She feels like they’re a message from her uncle on his way to wherever he’s going, a silent promise that it will be okay.
For steel-eyed sixth grader, C, it’s not enough. She’s angry and righteous and pained. She blames alcohol. Drinking has been ripping up the village like a wrecking ball these past few weeks. She wants the council to get together and stop it. “They used to check planes and raid people’s houses that did it, but they don’t do nothing now.” I want so badly for her to have the voice to scream it all someday and be heard, but for now she can’t, and it’s ripping her apart. She is so small and her feelings are so big. This place puts awful burdens on children.
Tonight, Terri, the lower elementary teacher who lives next door, banged on my window. “Come look!” she shrieked, “it’s incredible!”. I gathered my robe around my legs and stepped barefoot onto the porch. It was warm today, and the night was bearable for a long moment.
I stood slackjawed until the cold bit too hard into my toes and my bare knees had goosebumps.
Moments later, I was flinging pants and a coat and a hat on.
Have you ever laid back in a spinning playground tire swing and watched the northern lights ripple and unspool from green to pink in the sky? They unwind across the velvet stars like skeins of acid yarn. They flutter and shimmer like handlebar ribbons in the summer. Night lights for people in the cold.
I opened the door, which is always a bad idea at 10:15 on a Friday.
“Hide!” C whispered as she and the two others slipped under my arm and into my bathroom, dripping snow and rustling in their snowpants. “If they come looking for us, we’re not here. And your bathroom doesn’t work”, instructed A through the door.
“Are P and them here?” the boy had ridden up on a snow-go, and his dark clothes were frosted.
“I’m on my way to bed,” I said, sipping my tea.
“Okay. I thought I heard them.”
“I dunno. Have a good night, E” I turned and closed the door. “You can come out now.”
Problem: Cookie girls in need of a hiding place can be difficult to pry off of the comfy couch, especially when they are hungry and fully aware of their teacher lady’s weakness for popcorn.
Solution: Give them thin strips of dark tape to stick over their mouths like stitches, and teach them how to walk like zombies. This has the added benefit of silencing them (except for the zombie groans) so that the other sleepy teachers in the building can get some rest.
“Go chase after the people. You guys look terrifying. Out! I’ll give you more tape when you’re all suited up.”
“What if we scare somebody drunk and they try to beat us up?”
“Don’t chase after drunk people. Just go after the kids who were chasing you, or go home and try to scare B”
“Hide!” P shrieked, followed by bumps and shrieks and the bathroom door slamming
I opened the door to a different student. “What’s up?”
“Have you seen A and them?”
“Well, if you see them, tell them we’re having a campfire down the bank”
“Will do. Have a good night”
“You too Ms. O”
“She said there’s a campfire down bank. Get going” I scooted them toward the door.
“it’s probably a trap. They probably have lots of snowballs”
“you can scare the pants off them and they’ll drop all the snowballs. Go up to them and then pull your neckwarmers down and make dead eyes. Scoot!”
“Okay. Bye Ms. O.”
“Bye. Let me know how it goes.”
I quickly turned out living room lights, not ready for a full-scale midnight zombie invasion.
At quarter to six last night, I realized I had only enough butter left in the freezer for one batch of sugar cookies. I’ll be in Fairbanks in two weeks, but, last night, I was looking down the barrel of a long two weeks without butter. I tucked myself into my gear and crunched my way over to the store, hoping they were open, hoping i wouldn’t leave the girls stranded in the cold, hoping they’d have butter at the store, hoping they’d be able to break a fifty.
The store is four short aisles of dry goods, a couple of coolers and freezers, and a half-shelf with some bruised and spotted and wildly expensive fruit. There’s always stuff for sale hanging from the low ceiling on coat hangers. This week, the gloves and hats were interspersed with hand made red and pink paper hearts. The whole store could fit easily in the house Sean and I shared in Arkansas. It feels like a miniature gas station and general store, the kind you find on the roads out of town back home in Maine, only moreso. I snagged a couple of pounds of butter and set them on the counter. “That’s fifteen dollars” the girl said. I handed her a fifty, and she had to clean out the register to make change for me. I felt like a jerk.
I made it home by six, and Shannon and Jake dropped by to leave the nine colors of icing that Shannon had made for us to decorate our Valentine’s Day cookies with. After they headed out, the phone rang: C, calling to let me know that the girls would be late. “Helloooo,” she said in a silly, squeaky voice, “this is Shelleeeeeyyyy”
“Hi Shelly, what’s up?”
“Do you have any coooookiieeeess?”
“Not yet, but I’m planning to make some later”
“Can I have some?”
“Sure, Shelly. There’ll be plenty to go around”
“It’s just me!” She said in her normal voice. A giggle dam broke on the other end of the line. “We have to eat dinner. We’ll be late. Maybe… seven?”
“Sounds like a plan. Get plenty to eat so you don’t eat up all the cookies – Shelly!” This clever comment brought down the house and their laughter bubbled up through the phone until C hung it up. Click. Silence.
The girls showed up at seven.
P is thirteen-year-old agony in full bloom: she’s experimenting with makeup, crushing on an awful boy, bending the truth badly, and dancing to Avril Lavigne in front of the (my) bathroom mirror. It’s painful and wonderful. This is the one who wears snowpants all day. I can’t get over that. Snowpants and smudged eyeliner.
S is new to the group. Quiet and reserved except when she’s not, like a braces-smile, she doesn’t get as silly or open up as easily as the others, but she’s cracking her cool shell a little, and I like her quirky teeth and honest questions. She seemed genuinely surprised that I didn’t mind their eating raw cookie dough, playing their own music, and lounging on my couch.
C is the youngest. She about peed her pants laughing on my kitchen floor when her older sister walked in with eye-makeup last night. She spent minutes screaming in gales of giggles, clutching her belly and rolling under the table. P looked stricken for an instant, then rolled her expressive eyes at the two older girls and sat down like a lady. C got up and rolled her eyes at me, then started making silly faces, crossing her eyes and sticking out her tongue and squinching up her nose. I made silly faces back, and she lost it again.
A is like cotyledons. She’s like toes dipping toward a still pond or a palm testing the air around a wood stove. “Ms. O, can you check this?” She’s my strongest student in math, and my most needy. She loses her cool when she has to be creative. She loves grammar, and hates writing. It’s like she’s on the cusp of something, and just needs a little push to get there. “Did you like the poem you made me write? Why did it have to be fourteen lines?!” “Listen to this!” Improvements. Her smile is almost as bright as she is. A is the thinker. “Did you notice?” “Oh, do you think he meant…?” I think she’d throw herself off a cliff for me. I’m going to push her, and she’s going to fly.
Pop music, courtesy of DJ P, bounced off the walls. The sisters created some sort of complicated partner dance and practiced it to critical acclaim in the living room. We mixed and baked and frosted cookies. The girls gave me some of the latest news from the village: One of my male students was punched in the face last night by a drunk guy while he was out Walking Around (that’s what the kids do for fun). “Poor Guy!” “Do you’ll think he’ll have a black eye?” We decorated dozens of sugar cookies (enough for the whole school) with sprinkles and candy hearts and nine colors of icing until the girls collapsed on the couch in a frosting-streaked heap. They’d have stayed there all night if I hadn’t sent them away at 9:30.
The days are longer, now, and full of full-sun. I can no longer see stars on my walk to or from work. Used to be I couldn’t see anything else. I miss the romantic twilight of January, but I like the feeling that the world is growing every day, and gaining speed: I see some new shadow, or something newly in full sun, every time I leave the house. Last weekend, I saw the sun touch the ground for the first time, like a spill of sugar on an off-white carpet, and now it’s everywhere, an eggshell world accelerating toward the limit of daylight, ready to crack and spill yellow on everything.
The cookie girls came by tonight. We have a weekly deal, now, which brightens up my Thursdays. This Thursday was a little different, though. When one of them had called me at school earlier, I’d expressed my regrets: I had a dinner to get to and couldn’t make cookies with them. She was sad, but we agreed tomorrow would be fine. She asked if I could bring home the schoolwork she’d missed today so that she could swing by to pick it up, and I agreed on the condition that she not stay long, since I had a lot to do.
At around six-thirty, there was a knock on the door. I was on my way out, ready to tuck my cabbage salad under my arm and run through the cold night to the school building for the potluck, but when I saw the girls’ big brown eyes peeking out through frosty tunnels of winter gear, I had to let them in. I gave the young lady her homework, and she held out her hand in its grubby glove and offered me a wadded-up paper towel.
“Fry meat! You said you wanted us to bring you some” It was indeed meat, brown and greasy in its questionable paper towel vehicle. I popped a cube into my mouth and chewed. Tender. Sweet. Unfamiliar.
“What kind of meat is it?”
“Caribou.” This was my first caribou. I spotted a long, pale hair on one of the other chunks, smiled, and popped it in my mouth.
“Really! I’ve never had caribou before. It’s good!” I said, chewing.
“I’ll tell my auntie you liked it. Let’s go.” (this last to her sister)
“Wait, let me give you something.” I went to the cupboard and pulled down a treat “You guys will have to share, and this has to be a secret because I don’t have enough to share with everybody, but this is something special my parents sent me from Maine. You can only get caribou here in Alaska, and you can only get these in Maine, so it seems like a fair trade. It’s called a whoopie pie.”
“what is it?”
“Chocolate cake with frosting sandwiched in the middle”
“Yum. Thank you.”
“you’re welcome, girls. Thank you so much for sharing with me”
I should have said mahsi’. It’s the only word I know in Gwich’in, so I should start putting it to work.
They left and I finished throwing my cabbage salad together and flew out the door, savoring my last chunk of fry meat. It really was delicious, but that wasn’t the biggest reason for the grin on my face.