From the River Given

by Larry Buklis

It was quiet work, this casting of the net. Anna’s father backed the angyak, their wooden boat, slowly. The propeller of the old motor churned in reverse. Little waves lapped against the transom. Each board of the sturdy transom had been fitted by hand. Up front the curve of the bow perfectly matched the currents of the Kuigpak, the great river, the Yukon. The angyak had been built when Anna, now 15, was a small girl, long before Anna’s mother had taken ill with the coughing sickness.

Anna’s mother was back in fish camp this summer. There would be no more clinics for her, no more kass’aq, or Western, medicine, no more of the kass’aqcure. Life came from the river. This was a mystery to Anna. She had spent enough time in the village school to have doubts about the old ways, the ways she had learned from her parents.

The net, twine meshes lying limp between cork and lead, fell out over the bow. Anna tossed handfuls from the floor of the angyak so it wouldn’t snag going over. The green web disappeared in the granite grey of the cold water. The throb of the outboard, the lapping waves, and a gull squawking above them were the only sounds. It was the smell of neqa, fish, from the wet net that had drawn the white and grey bird. He demanded something to be brought to the surface, crying in frustration. The net was being let out, not pulled in. He would find no neqa here yet.

Anna knew of crying. She had cried when her mother had gone for treatment. But her mother was back and would not be leaving again. She had cried, too, when death came to her family. Her sister, Elizabeth, died soon after birth. And her brother, Andrew, fell through the ice, never to be found. Buried in the river, they said. By death Anna was left to do her brother’s work. There was no shame in this for Anna. For her father she could not tell.

Now that the net was fully out, Anna held a length of rope tethered to the float line. As the rope stretched taught, Anna’s father throttled down then shut off the motor. Anna looped the end of the rope on a cleat and leaned back. The stern swung around and they were adrift, the silence nearly complete. She loved to let her mind wander while they drifted downriver with their net full out. The only better moment was when they pulled the net in, revealing the mystery of what had been caught.

Her father was half standing, half sitting against the outboard cowling. He dug into his shirt pocket for a plug of chewing tobacco and smiled as Anna looked back at him. His teeth showed through his weathered face. Wrinkles radiated from around his eyes. After all the years of bending, lifting, chopping, and hauling, his back must often be sore, but he never complained. Anna’s father had not gone beyond sixth grade in school. He had learned from grandfather how to live from the land and water. He spoke English, but he was more comfortable in Yup’ik, the Native language of his ancestors.

Anna smiled, then turned to watch the net, waiting for the corks to bob. We don’t catch the salmon, Anna’s father had told her, they give themselves to us. As the sun worked higher into the morning sky, the incessant lapping of the waves against the angyak lulled Anna into her dream.

It was quiet, incredibly quiet. The deep snow seemed to absorb all sound, the cold air freezing all motion. Anna stood on the river bank looking out across the winterscape. The January sun provided no warmth, only light, a bright mid-day light that faded to darkness by early afternoon. In this dream it was always the same. Her feet were frozen to the ground, she could not move. Someone came toward her from the far side of the river. It was a boy walking on the windswept surface of the ice. Anna knew it was Andrew before she could see his features. He was coming back. Why he was out so far on his own she would never know. But he was coming back.

Anna could see her brother clearly. He was closer than before. She called to him, but her words were without sound. The cold air snuffed them in the vapor leaving her mouth. She didn’t need words. Andrew was going to make it without her. Anna could still see him. He was just a few hundred feet away. Then she heard a dull thud and splash. Andrew was still there on the ice, still coming toward her. What made the splash? How could he have gone through?

The corks bobbed twenty feet or more off the bow, wrapped together, and went down hard. Anna turned to tell her father they had snagged up on something – something big. Father was gone. She was alone in the wooden angyak. Tears came to Anna’s eyes and fear tightened her stomach as she reached for the net.

The angyak was still drifting. They hadn’t caught up on a snag. Anna pulled on the net. It came in a bit. It was free, but weighted. Anna sat on the front bench, braced her feet on the slope of the bow wall and gripped the rope in both hands. She leaned back with a grunt. The net moved three feet. She reached forward, one hand at a time, reset her grip and rocked back again. The boat moved off their intended drift. Downriver a tangled shoreline of caved-in bank, brush, and horizontal alder trees loomed. Sweepers, they were called. They meant imminent danger to an angyak that drifted too close.

Her choices were few and she had little time. Anna could cut free the tangled net and drift safely away; or she could tie off the cork line, hoping to be quick enough to restart the outboard and tow the load; or she could continue pulling in an effort to jerk the net aboard, leaving the work of the sweepers to fate. Anna thought of her mother, of the sickness she believed would be healed by returning to life on the river. She thought of Elizabeth, the sister she had never known, and of Andrew and the dream that never ended.

It came suddenly then, from beneath the pain of the passing years and the ice that always gave way, from beneath the water upon which she drifted. It rose up in a single word, the voice of a child now grown, parting the silence with a shout of “NO!” that would have echoed endlessly had there been hills to reflect the sound. Anna felt neither panic nor fear. It was a call to her father. And for her father, Anna would retrieve this net, or she would know no more than of her trying.

The priest who visited their village spoke of creation and redemption, of final judgment and life everlasting. The angalkuq, village shaman, spoke of the animals giving themselves to the hunter who was respectful of the hunted, and of the need to honor the spirit of ancestors in the world around them. Anna didn’t know whether the priest or the angalkuq was right. Maybe they both were; maybe neither. Was Andrew living with the ancestors? Why does he come to me in the dream? Is Elizabeth still a baby, or has she grown? Maybe they are just gone, alive only in our memory.

Father would not be a memory. In this moment, there was only one reality. It was a rope held in the grip of clenched hands. How does the eagle in flight carry a salmon nearly half its weight? How does the wolverine on legs measured in inches walk 40 miles in a day? Anna reached ahead and grabbed for more rope. Leaning back fiercely, almost hitting the floor of their angyak, she pulled with newfound strength. The first cork float came over the side of the angyak with a bump. More followed with each rocking grab and pull.

A tangled mass of wet web came over the top. Anna reached out with her left hand and felt her father’s sopping jacket. She pulled again, and again, until her father’s limp form reached the balance point. Then she fell back with the weight of him on top. Water poured from his jacket and blue jeans. Anna wiggled out from under his dead weight. She had done the impossible by bringing him aboard alone. But could she bring him back to life?

Anna bent over her father and checked for pulse, then breath, as she had been taught in the village school. Finding neither, she struggled to recall the steps. Check the airway. Give two breaths. Start chest compressions. There was no time to worry. She focused entirely on the rhythm of her locked arms pressing down on her father’s barrel chest. When she paused to give more breaths, their angyak continued to sway to the beat. Shifting down over her father’s chest, the rhythm gained new life.

Once you started rescue breathing and chest compressions, you were committed. Anna remembered that. And you kept going until the patient recovered, or someone was able to relieve you, or you were too exhausted to go on. There would be no one to help her out here and quitting was not an option. Only when her father breathed again would she stop.

It was a gentle touch at first, a wisp along the edge of their angyak, then an alder branch scraped hard against the wooden hull. They were in the sweepers. Anna glanced up for a moment, ducked down, and began another cycle of compressions. Once you begin, you are committed.

Anna knew of commitment. Salmon fishing, berry picking, wood chopping, moose hunting, ice fishing, trapping – there was no break in the seasonal round of gathering for food and materials. Fishing and trapping also brought in small amounts of cash. Her father was a man of few words. He lived his life by doing, not talking. That had always been his way, even more so after Andrew was gone. They had been setting snares for snowshoe hare along frozen sloughs, Father and Andrew working stretches of shoreline together by dogsled. Their sled was anchored at the mouth of a slough where it met the Kuigpak. Father worked a bank of fallen brush while Andrew stayed back with the team. But something must have drawn him on. He was old enough to want to be like his father, but young enough to misread the ice. Anna later confronted the priest, asking, “Where was your God that day? Did he weary from his work? Was he too busy with someone else when Andrew needed him?”

Was it the branch or the breath? Anna would never remember which was first. All she knew was that both came at nearly the same instant. A collapsed alder thicket, branches low over the water, deflected the back end of their angyak. They were spun out and away from shore. Higher and the branches would have swept Anna overboard. And the breath, could Anna ever forget her father’s first breath, when he suddenly began breathing on his own again?

After Anna had gotten them back to their village, after her father had been taken by bush plane to the regional hospital, the doctor would talk about cold water drowning and how the heart and lungs can shut down, enhancing chances for survival. How could her father, so sure-footed in their angyak, fall overboard? Had he had a small heart attack, a stroke? The doctor couldn’t be sure. But before he could run more tests, even before the necessary forms could be located, Anna’s father was out the door. He was still working shirt buttons between thumb and forefinger as his footsteps sounded on the metal grating of the walkway outside. Anna knew there would be no more tests for her father.

The angalkuq spoke of the river taking her father, and then giving him back, a sign he was still needed. Anna knew little of doctor’s tests. She was unsure whether a river could take and give back a life. All she knew was that Father brought in a moose that fall, soon after the first hard frost. It would provide meat to give strength for the winter days ahead. And the dream, the one of Andrew that never ended, came back no more.

After a time, Anna found herself searching for the priest. He was patient with her. He taught her about the Creation; especially the part about the Spirit moving across the face of the waters, was a lot like something the angalkuq might say. So, too, was the part about Moses leading the people through the wilderness. Mostly, though, there were events from the life of Jesus.

One day, with the coming of spring, the priest told of Jesus weeping before raising his friend Lazarus from the dead, and walking on the water to join his friends in their wind-tossed boat. That was the moment, Anna later realized, when, like the first disciples, she began to believe.

Larry Buklis, now retired, was a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and a biologist and administrative specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for more than 40 years.  In addition to professional publications, he is the author of a book for middle school readers, Mysteries from the Yukon: The Adventures of a Junior Biologist, published by the American Fisheries Society.  He holds a B.S. in Biology from Loyola University of Chicago, an M.S. in Fisheries from the University of Alaska, and an M.A. in Theology from Catholic Distance University.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s