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Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

Spotlight On...

Jerry D. McDonnell - More info on Jerry after the word/prompt for the week to the right.

"Winter Too Short, Too Loud"

Published in South Dakota Review; Vol. 43, No. 1 & 2, Spring/Summer 2005

Reprinted with permission from the author.

The following is copywritten material and cannot be used or distributed without permission by the author.

Winter Too Short, Too Loud

Final Installment

When she awoke her husband was beside her in another wood place. It smelled good and light came in through an opening you could see through.
“Stay strong,” he said. “Things are going to get better.”
“What is this thing I am on?” she asked.
“It is called a bed. Isn’t it nice? It’s warm and soft.”
“Where am I?”
“You are in the Dillingham place. The trial is over.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you are going to die.”
 The Orthodox Priest man came into the wood place through an entrance. “Are you well?” he asked in her language. She could see another man behind the priest on the other side of the entrance sitting, watching.
She turned her head to see the priest, but did not know what to say. Turning back to her husband . . . he was gone again. The priest sat beside her and began to unwrap her bandaged head. For the first time, Anita realized that her head was wrapped in bandages. “Take this,” the priest said handing her a pill and a cup of water. She did not want to take it. He was one of the gusik people, but his voice was smooth and gentle. Most of the words she did not understand, but his smile was like a sunrise over the tundra on clear sky day when the ptarmigan came out of their snow caves. She sensed she could trust him and took the pill. He changed her bandages. She didn’t want to but soon she fell asleep.

When Anita awoke, she saw a half moon through the opening against a night sky. Feeling better, she got to her feet and walked to the opening and touched it. It was clear, cold and solid but she could see through it. Tapping on it with a finger, it made a small thumping sound. Stars in the sky were twinkling and the snow reflected the light of the moon. Two stray dogs ran across the tundra, stopped and looked back at her as if it was an invitation. Anita placed both hands on the opening, laid her cheek against the cold glass and closed her eyes. The land of ice melted before her and she saw a bear wading across the river. A caribou walked around her snare and her husband sat on the bank of the river, laughing, carving a stick. He was so happy. Always so happy, and he is still happy. She opened her eyes and cried.
 “What are you doing up?” a loud voice shouted. A man came through the entrance. He was big and had a hairy face and had a rifle in one hand. “Seems you’re well enough to hang now.” Anita stood firm like an esker of stone. Her tears stopped. Her eyes narrowed as she clenched her fist. The man rushed to her, grabbing her by the arm, pulling her to him. His smell was unbearable and his smile evil. Dragging her away from the window, he underestimated her strength. Anita swung her free fist into his groin. He doubled over. She raised her knee swift and fast into his face and then raised it again catching him again in the groin. The man fell heavily to the wood floor and the room shook. Anita acted quickly. Tearing off the flimsy cloth they had dressed her in, she found her skins in the corner and was half dressed when the Russian Orthodox Priest came in. Anita swept the rifle from the floor, held it by the barrel and raised it to use as a club.
“Hold,” the priest said gently, his hand open at the end of his stretched out arm. Anita held. Slowly she lowered the rifle. “You don’t even know how to use it do you?” he said. “When you caught the man in your caribou snare you didn’t mean it did you? But you left him hanging there and he froze to death. Isn’t that the way it happened?”  Anita nodded, but she didn’t understand completely; his Yup’ik was not good. She pieced the words snare and man and froze to death and worked on them as she continued dressing. “If you go, they will come for you,” he said. “I’ve convinced them you deserve another trial. We are waiting on a proper judge.” Anita walked toward the door. The priest moved and blocked her way. Anita stared at him. She did not want to kill him, but she must leave. Their stares connected. Anita’s brow wrinkled, her jaw flexed. The Priest finally gave a crooked smile and stepped aside.
The house she was being held in was on the edge of the town. Anita looked into the night sky and began walking across the tundra in the direction of her dugout wondering how long the darkness would last. The half moon was high in the sky, and she could see a distance toward the mountains. After a half an hour of walking, she began to feel faint, her head again hurting. Touching her hand to her bandaged head, it came away with stains of blood. She walked until she fell.
“Get up,” her husband said. He was dressed like the priest.
“Why are you dressed like that?”
“Get on the sled,” her husband said.
Anita looked at the sled pulled by dogs she did not know and pulled herself up onto it with her husband’s help and then passed out.
When she awoke she was lying on the snow not far from her dugout as the light of a gray day began from the east over the mountain. There were no tracks leading to or from where she lay. Before she could raise herself, Elena was at her side. “You must not stay here. You must go up river. Can you travel?”
“Where is the sled?” Anita said.
“What sled?”
“The sled that brought me here.”
“There is no sled. You walked here. I saw you coming, and I saw you fall. I was sent to watch for you I think. I had a dream that you were walking from Dillingham and were in trouble. I have been waiting all night.”
“Then you saw, Sammy, my husband, your brother.”
“No. You must be still hurt bad. Sammy is dead. You know that, don’t you?”
“But the tracks? There are no tracks.”
“It is snowing, of course there are no tracks.
 “My dogs,” Anita said.
“We will take care of your dogs until next winter. Now you must hide like only you know how where no one will know. There is one man you can trust who will help you stay up river until you get well. He is from another people south of Dillingham. He saw what they did to you.”

A week later, Anita watched the man called Alexie paddle his kayak back down the river leaving her instructions to go someplace even he would not know. As she walked into the mountains, her dog Alag by her side, she talked to Sammy who was as usual laughing about how funny the gusik man looked hanging frozen to death from Anita’s snare last summer. Anita laughed with him saying how the priest thought she didn’t mean to kill the man who killed Sammy. The bad man did look funny hanging there. Alag hid in the trees with her when the airplane flew over them making the noise one could hear from far away.

Winter Too Short, Too Loud

Part 3

The sun was high in the sky the next day when Anita heard the voice of Elena calling out as she ran to the dugout. Anita, still asleep, vaguely remembered hearing Elena’s warning cries or the the gusik men and the Yup’ik men shouting. Guns were shown, bows and arrows and harpoons were lowered. Stern looking gusik men beat Anita while the people looked on helplessly. Anita lost consciousness and only vaguely remembers the sled taking her to Dillingham or the fact that she loosened her bonds on the trip and tried to choke a man when they lifted her off the sled with her feet still bound. She barely remembers getting beat again by several men and hit hard on the head while a group of gusiks and a few Yup'iks she did not know watched.
Hurting and hungry, she awoke in a dark place of solid wood like none she had ever seen before. Then she was taken to a larger closed in place of solid wood filled with light. Strange men spoke in words she did not understand. Her husband sat beside her at a thing he called a table.
“They are giving you a trial for murder,” he said.
“Is that the same as killing?” she asked. Anita was beginning to understand as she saw some of the same men who had been there when her husband was killed.  “What does this trial do?”
“It kills people,” he said. “Don’t be afraid. It is not so bad.”
Anita was having trouble knowing where she was and her head still hurt and she couldn’t understand what people were saying and the room was hot and stuffy and she had never been in such a large closed in place with some many strange people and the smell . . .  a man dressed different than the others came to her and said a few words in her language, but pronounced the words oddly. And then he brought a man she had never seen before to translate. The translator said the man who dressed different was a Russian Orthodox Priest who wished to help her. Another man sat beside her where her husband had been. The translator said he also was to help her. Much talking went on, people sometimes shouted and pointed at her. The translator said things to her about their laws she did not understand. Anita only wished to be alone back on the land with her dogs. She put her head down on this table and saw herself far north with her husband in their winter home where no one else came. She wished these people who it was said were to help her could let her go there and be left alone; the noise in this place was worse than the airplane, and the smell of the large wood place with so many gusiks and a few natives was very, very bad, and she was too hot, and she tried to take off her parka, but people again shouted and pointed at her, and a man in front of everyone banged a club on a table . . .  she passed out. 

To Be Continued...

Winter Too Short, Too Loud

Part 2 - See Post Below for Part 1

Anita felt the warmth of sun on her face. She saw her Yup’ik husband coming across the tundra, a pack dog walking behind him. As usual, he was smiling and laughing. He had two rabbits in his hand. Behind him a flock of ptarmigan still in their winter white plumage flew up over his head and scattered in every direction as a large black cloud came racing across the sky faster than a flight of ducks. The cloud descended and overtook her husband. He looked surprised as the cloud swallowed him like bear eating a shrew. And then she was cold. Anita opened her eyes, the moon in a clear, dark sky waited on top of the mountain in front of her. She could only see a few stars. Alag kept licking her face making it warm. The rest of the dog team waited, all still in harness, the sled behind them. It was hard to get up. She was shaking; her skin parka and pants were frozen stiff. She had stayed out too long, should have pulled her snares a week ago. Quickly, she took off her parka, knocked the ice from the fur inside it and put it back on. Doing the same with the pants and the mukluks, in frenzy she found the caribou robe. The robe around her, she began running in circles. The dogs were barking. One tried to break from the harness. Another picked a fight with another. Anita ran to the sled, shoved the sled brake into the snow, broke up the fight with blows, and calmed the other dog. She was still shaking. She had to move. She needed fire. The dogs settled, she pulled the brake and gave the command. Running behind the sled, she drove them toward the mountains where she knew there was a stand of cottonwoods. It was hard to keep up the pace, her heart was beating, she was still shaking, her vision was blurring. Her husband, riding in the sled, talked to her and joked.
“Did someone have a nice swim?” he said.
“Why did you leave me?” she answered.
“ Someone smells better now with the cool waters taking away the sweat. You were starting to smell like an old bear existing on salmon carcasses.
“I need you. Why did you die?”
“I’m here. I brought your dogs back. Keep running. Someone would run with you but his feet are sore. Someone has been walking for moons looking for you. Why do you stay out so long? Besides the view is better here lying on the sled watching the moon set over the mountain and the stars twinkling.”
“I saw something today.”
“The airplane? Oh yes, I saw it too. There will be many more of those in the coming years.”
“Airplane. What is an airplane?”
“It is something people ride in.”
“In the sky?
“Yes,’ in the sky, he said. “It carries people places very quickly. Someone is not shaking anymore. Someone must be getting warmer. That is good. I loved a strong woman. Keep running.”
“But how does it get in the sky? And how does it get down? Its wings don’t move. It doesn’t have feet, and it is very noisy. It hurts someone’s ears.”  
“They all have feet. Some are hidden like a bird when it flies. The cottonwoods are ahead. A fire will be nice. Someone is getting cold.”
“Why didn’t you fight back?”
“It was useless. There were too many of them. We didn’t know of the gun then. It shoots a very small dart that doesn’t even have a point on it. It goes right through your skin like spear or an arrow; it can even crush bones; it is very powerful. I thought if I walked away they would let me go.”
“He shot you in the back. He was not a good man,” she said.
“But you got away. It was you they wanted. They wanted to use you. They thought you were very beautiful. That is why the one came looking for you.”
“He found me.”
“I know. But he will bother you no more. And we are here. Here is the wood to build a fire. Get wood. I will watch the dogs if you set the brake.”
Luckily, Anita found some dry limbs low on a tree, quickly snapped them into smaller pieces, and with some tender she had in the sled and her tools that made sparks, a fire quickly came to life. The fire going, her parka and pants drying close to the heat, she turned to talk to her husband, but he was gone. She put on larger pieces of wood and looked up at the stars. The moon had set over the mountain. The sun would be up shortly. As tired as she was, she knew she must go on. She couldn’t wait another day to cross the mountain range over the pass.

The crossing of the pass went well and the dogs took her down the southern slope as the sun came up. On a ridge far to east, she saw a bear coming out of hibernation. It came out of the snow, put its head in the air, sniffed, rolled its head and then laid down in the sun and went back to sleep. In the distance to the south she could see the dwellings of a group of the people who had gathered for the winter at a wide spot on the river not far from her dugout. For over three moons she had been gone, living at her secret cave far in the interior where she and her husband had against tradition lived together most winters. He did not stay in the men’s house like the rest of the people and the couple did not have children. Most people thought they were an odd pair. Anita stopped the dogs halfway down the mountain looking at the dwellings; fear set into her heart. What if the strange ones, the gusiks, were waiting for her? A mere few hours by dogs on the other side of the river, one could be at the settlement on the coast of the sea where the strange ones had built dwellings of wood a few years ago and people in large, wooden boats began catching salmon. Anita had only been told about it, but the strange ones had named it Dillingham. It was south of Igusik, their summer fish camp on the coast. Anita looked at the dwellings on the wide spot by the river for a long time trying to see if anything looked strange before she started the dogs again.

“I tell you it went straight. It did not swoop or glide silently like an eagle: it went straight. It went straight like an arrow. If it was a bird, the wings did not move. Not once did it flap its wings.” Anita told the people. “And it made a loud noise. It is called an airplane.”
“We know. We have all seen one. Wassile touched one in Dillingham. There is a place where they take off and land there.”
Anita waited to ask if anyone had been looking for her. She knew which person she would ask when the time is proper. Some people were afraid for Anita’s safety. But some looked at her strangely and trust was not in their eyes. Many new things have happened since she left last fall. One person went to Dillingham and did tasks for men who gave him a thing called money. It is used to get other things. Most people here will not take it because it is useless. But the gusiks like this money very much it seems. They seem to think it is sacred. If you try to take it from them they will kill you. Young Natasha took some to look at it and the person became very angry and threatened to hurt her. Another older person took some and they took him away. He is in a place they call jail. He only wanted to look at it to see if he could make something out of it. He thought maybe he could patch a kayak with it or put it on a parka as decoration, but it wasn’t very pretty; it was very nothing, just green with small pictures and designs on it. They must be sacred pictures.  
Anita did not tell anyone about seeing her husband and how he had saved her. Most people were already afraid of her because or her strange ways and her strength. But still the ones who were afraid of her and did not have trust in their eyes took a portion of the caribou that Anita shared with the people. After the sharing of the caribou, she took the dogs to her dugout. While taking care of the dogs, Elena, one of her husband’s sisters, came to her dugout.
“Someone was gone a long time and is tired,” Elena said. Anita merely nodded while she unhitched the dogs, bedded them down and fed them. She thought about telling Elena about seeing her brother, but she did not. They watched a flight of circling cranes coming from the south and then sat quietly outside the dugout looking across the tundra toward the mountains. A time passed while they watched the birds in the sky, the clouds move and felt the soft spring wind on their faces. The sun had fallen near the top of the mountain before Elena spoke again. “Some gusiks were looking for you this winter. They came twice. I don’t think they like winter. Maybe you should not have come back. Maybe you should go north to your other people.” In silence the two ate some hot food Elena cooked for them. Before Anita fell into a deep sleep in her dugout, she gave Elena some beaver hides.

To Be Continued...

Winter Too Short, Too Loud

Part 1

Anita was not afraid of many things. The day she killed the strange, gusik outsider had not bothered her. He had killed her husband. Some of the people say she had killed the killer. She didn’t mean to kill him, but he was a bad man. Her husband was a good man. It was right. The way Anita saw it, the bad man had killed himself by being foolish. But now, this noise she heard coming was like no noise she had ever heard before. She saw it on the distant horizon approaching like a duck flying straight and fast. Quickly, Anita pulled her fishing stick and line from the ice hole and slipped into the sled under her caribou robe, flipping the lighter tanned side up to blend in with the snow. The napping dogs, already burrowed into the snow, blended in well; the thing in the sky would not be able to see them unless the noisy thing had eagle eyes.

The sound in the sky was deafening, louder than an angry bear. Anita held her hands over her ears. As the sound decreased, she peeked out from the robe and watched the bird thing in the sky; it glided like an eagle, but if those were its wings they never moved. Taking its sound with it, the thing moved like a well-thrown spear until it faded into the gray sky. Never once did the wings move. It was nothing she had ever seen before and in these times it was wise to stay hidden. She thought it must be another thing from these Russians or these other people who had come to her land. These strange ones were strong and rude and knew little of the land. She recorded the sky thing well in her memory to be able to describe it to the people and warn them. The dogs had only cocked their ears at the noise but did not seem too alarmed, which gave Anita hope.

The thing in the sky did not come back. Anita went back to her ice fishing. When the sun was low on the horizon she woke the dogs, fed them, and drove the sled toward home. All of her snares had been pulled, the useful pieces stored on the sled. At this time of year in the far north, there would be light for several more hours. Summer was near and darkness had reduced itself. She had been gone most of the winter, yet it was still a distance back to her dugout, 8 or 10 hours by dog sled if the trail was good. Maybe she had stayed out too long at this time of year, she thought. It was a thing she had been thinking about for several days. For over a week she had rested the dogs but not herself. Sometimes it was becoming hard to concentrate on things, difficult to do things the proper way. Crossing the pass over the mountain range would be the worst as it had snowed several inches a few days ago coating the old snow and ice. It would not be easy to see thin ice or bad snow. The temperatures were warming, which meant soft, rotten snow and ice breaking up on the waters that her and the dogs could break through.

A greater danger may lie near her dugout and the people. Some people may still be looking for her. Some other people might be willing to turn her over to the gusiks. In recent years, people were doing strange things, and Anita was not like the other people of the region. She was only half related in some peoples’ eyes. The Athapaskan half of her had made her tall and the Yup’ik half had made her heavily boned. Her eyelids lacked the epicanthic folds of the Yup’ik Eskimos, but had given her skin a light color that turned to olive when weathered by the sun as opposed to the darker skin of an Athapaskan Indian. Her facial features were sculptured, lacking the flatter faces of the Yup’iks. She had inherited the best traits from each people. Being half-Indian and half-Eskimo she looked different to both races. To some she was beautiful; to others she was odd. She was strong and liked to be alone, which for some men was too much not like a woman. No other woman lived alone. Even women without children lived with their sisters or mothers or someone else. Most of the winter Anita tended to her snares, running dogs pulling a sled like an Athapaskan in the interior of Alaska. In the summer she tended her nets taking fish like a Yup’ik from the Bering Sea and the rivers. And she dressed like a man.

The dogs, sensing they were going toward home, were anxious, and they ran too fast. Anita slowed them with soft calls, lightly applying the brake and riding the runners. Her dogs, like trusted friends, listened to her every utterance. The only sound was the soft sliding of the sled’s rails and the paws of the six dogs trotting on the snow. The terrain was flat, white, covered with wind swept ridges of snow and ice. A few clumps of bushes could be seen in the distance along the edges of the drainages. The late evening sun reflected a red hue from the sky and onto the distant mountains foretelling a clear day ahead. Anita continued riding the sled rails because she was so very tired. The dogs were rested and fed, and she knew a moon would rise late this night allowing her to travel the short hours of darkness if she wished. As the day spent itself, the temperature dropped well below freezing making the snow firm. Yes, she would try to cross the pass tonight before the next day’s sun warmed the snow no matter how tired she was.

They made good time for five hours with short rests. At the foot of the mountains, a full moon reflecting off the snow, Anita and the dogs stopped. Now they had to cross the river and leads were already starting to show. The visible amount of her exhaling breath told her the temperature was continuing to drop, but it was difficult to know if the ice was clear, meaning safe, or frosty colored with cracks, meaning not safe. Two major leads in front of them presented open water over deep holes. Unhooking Alag, her lead dog, she walked along the bank a distance looking for a safer place to cross. Delighted to be free of the harness, the dog romped beside her. At a spot that looked solid, hanging onto a clump of grass on the bank, Anita tested the ice by stomping her foot and listening to the sound. She tried to pry a large rock from the bank to throw on the ice, but the ground was still too frozen.

“Alag, go,” she pointed. The dog obeyed and walked onto the ice, crossing to the other side. The weight of the dog would not tell her much about the thickness of the ice but it seemed solid under the inches of fresh snow. Anita then tested the ice underfoot and found that her 120 pounds did not cause cracking sounds near the edge, which is usually the thinnest ice. A third of a way across the river, she bent down to the ice and swiped away the fresh snow with her seal hide mittens. The ice beneath was slightly frosty, but it did not show any cracks. It might hold her, but would it hold the sled with the furs and the fresh meat from the caribou she had recently snared? Reading the evening sky, Anita forecast a warmer tomorrow making the ice less sure. If she remembered correctly, the river bottom at this spot was not too deep except for two holes. The night would not last long. Exhausted, she made her decision.

The dogs raced onto the ice. Running behind the sled and pushing hard, Anita shouted them on when she heard the ice crack beneath the runners. Her next step found open water, and she was instantly immersed up to her chest. The current beneath the ice drug at her mukluks and her seal skin pants. One hand gripped a runner of the sinking sled. She was stretched out; the dogs pulled her toward the shore while the current pulled her under the ice. Water went over her head. Her hand began to slip from her mitten just as one foot found bottom. Emerging from the water, she saw the dogs straining on the harness trying to free the sinking sled. Shouting encouragement to the dogs, she pushed hard off the bottom, found shallower water, put her weight behind the sled lifting it and shoving it toward shore. Abruptly, she was being drug across the ice, onto the shore and across the tundra, the dogs running madly, the sled bouncing behind them over drifts of snow. Her strength gone, she lost her grip. The last thing she saw from a shrew’s view inches from the surface of the cold, moonlit snow was the dog team and sled fading into night.

To Be Continued.....