Jul/Aug 2005 Nonfiction

Tundra Child, Deep Freeze

by Kat McElroy

It's cold up here in Interior Alaska, subzero, time to climb into parkas and snowpacks for the duration; the sun went away. And I'm tard, oh lordy, tard to the bone.

I've got a former client holed up in a two-room apartment on the east side of town. She's got one hand on a whiskey bottle, the other on a razor blade, and for two months now has been guzzling to oblivion, surfacing only to replenish her whiskey supply and to carve weird designs along her forearms. She calls me in the middle of the night to remind me how much she hates white people, men, social workers, shrinks and cops.

Me, too, kiddo, me too. Too much of the time.

Notice I say Former client. She's all better now. In theory, she's one of our successes. I always called her The One They Pushed Away, this girl, still a child when first I met her, a decade ago, sitting sullen in the basement detox wing of a longterm chemical dependency treatment center.

"Another fat white woman come to tell me how to live my life right..." her eyes said, her mouth bunched tight.

I picked up her baby boy, chubby cheeks and Eskimo-flat nose, big eyes, Hello! who put his fat arms round my neck and climbed into the crook of my shoulder. And that's how I learned to know her, The One They Pushed Away, the tundra child, who always sat hunched and turned half sidewise away from me, peeking from behind a curtain of dull blueblack hair, straight as a stick and thick as nettles massed on the riverbank.

In pieces and flashes, spit at me, grudgingly, she told me her stories, mostly from the scars they'd left, battle ribbons to attest to the ability of the human spirit to survive abuse beyond description.

Picture of a village girl running wild across the seashore, screaming with the hungry gulls, her eight year old feet fleet enough to escape the drunken disorder that just exploded in her home, a canvas wall tent set on pilings on the north slope of the Brooks Range.

Here's where the kerosene lamp was thrown against her thighs, rippled stippled bumpy tracks, some burnt still blackened.

Here's the polkadots of cigarette burns, inflicted by an older brother, the one who also used her body for sexgames beginning when she was six.

And there's the dotted line that says Cut Here, a zigzag across her neck, from the 30-something husband who took her as child bride at age 14, he opened her up with a fishfilleting knife one night; her feet now twisted from frostbite from walking naked at 40 below after he tossed her bleeding out into the snow.

A puckered line from the top of her scalp snakes across her brow and down her cheek, that one she doesn't remember at all.

I've watched her get sober, relapse, get sober, a halfdozen times in ten years, each time we've scratched a little deeper, each time she's let me see another layer of her complex relationship with her family, village, the children she keeps shitting out on a regular basis, to have them taken from her by white people who scold her and preach and do their damndest to fix her brokenness.

And ya know what's the worst of it, at the very bottom? She misses her abusers. She misses the father who raped her, now dead, who we sat in hospital and watched the cancer eating him from inside out, her muttering curses the whole while and wondering aloud Why Do I Love Him? She misses the brother who taught her to sniff gas and played with her body and made her feel if not wanted, at least attended to. She misses the mother who pushed her away, pushed her away, pushed her away, shoving jesuslove down her throat, "suffer the little children...." She misses the village, the empty spaces, the tundra, the ocean ice, the coming of the whales, the massing geese, the fish hanging in racks. She keeps going back. And always, she finds the bottle, the pipe, the rage and pain, and worst of all, the ghosts of all her children who will never run screaming across the tundra for they are being raised in prefab houses and sent to whiteman's schools to learn the ways of the teacher, the preacher, the bigbucks cashcow oil field trash who've taken over her world up there.

In her last treatment, she stayed over a year. She became employed, bought a car, learned to drive the city streets, got an apartment, learned to make microwave meals and to watch TV, alone with her thoughts and her memories.

"Sometimes, late at night," she confessed to me, "I talk to my children, I tell them all I know, all I can remember about cutting whalemeat and how to hang it and when. I sing to them the song of the geese, and tell them how to climb across the cliffs to bring home fresh eggs. I tell them all the stories that grandma taught me when I hid beneath her kusp'ik in the afternoons when the barge would come and dad would walk home carrying a case of booze. I pretend they can hear me. I swear I hear them talking back, crying to me, saying they don't want to go to school anymore. Am I crazy?"

She started cutting herself about five months ago. "I can't feel anything," she explained. And then she started bringing bottles home to her empty apartment at night, the TV blaring blue, her only companion.

"I'm lonely, lost, and lonely..." she says, and "I've been dead a long, long time."

I count the days, waiting for the inevitable end; she'll suicide, or die choking on her own vomit, just another dead drunk klootch.

I tell her all my stories, too, wanting to bind her to life, wanting to spark that weak flickering spirit that kept her twined to the land of the living.

I joke with her, "If I beat you with a stick and threw you into the snow, would you grow to love me? Would you bond to me?"

She laughs. "Worth a try..." she suggests, pushing her hair back from her face, and for a moment I see the eight year old girl again, that strength.

I'm tired, and it's cold, and I don't know about hate, or love, or life, or the human spirit. I just know it hurts.


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