Leaving Shaktoolikby Sarah Beaudette
Competition: Short Story Challenge 2016, Final Round
Genre: Open Subject: Eavesdropping Character: A hoarder
Original Illustration by Yevgenia Nayberg
After you were gone, the animals left the house in a slow, sad exodus. Some of the sickest ones died waiting for you. I tried to help them, but they wouldn’t take any food from me. One day I found the arctic hare you’d named Elizabeth, drowned in the toilet. I still don’t know what happened to it.
On your first seal hunt, I’d wanted you to stay home--you were seven, and I didn’t think you could hold still for so long. So you went behind my back and asked your Grandpa.
You and Grandpa knelt in your parkas, two Inuit statues on a hide rug on the ice. Grandpa watched the breathing hole, but your eyes were trained on a pressure ridge a few hundred metres away. You were listening to something Grandpa and I couldn’t hear.
Not even a strand of your hair moved for the three hours it took the seal to come to that breathing hole. After Grandpa speared it, he let you give the seal its last drink of water, the ritual mouthful from your smooth lips to its whiskery ones.
It was my habit as an Angakkuq and as your mother to listen to your thoughts, and that day I expected to hear your sadness for the dead seal. But you were excited. When you’d kissed the seal, your touch made it want to come back to life.
You looked up and caught my stunned glance. You frowned. I hate it when you do that, Mama.
When I put you to bed that night, you said, “Mama, I can’t hear thoughts like you and Grandpa can. I don’t think I’m supposed to be an Angakkuq.”
I was going to tell you that it takes longer than seven years of knowing someone to hear their thoughts, but you were already falling asleep.
“I think I’m supposed to help animals,” you yawned, and turned over.
By the time you were eight, you were collecting real animals like other girls collected plastic ones. I made you get rid of them half a dozen times, but they always came back. Our floors grew matted with moss and dirt. I began to check every cushion and mattress for occupants before I sat down. I couldn’t go to the kitchen for a cup of coffee without being scolded by the ptarmigan in a pile of grass behind the trash can. I couldn’t take a shower without feeling modest in front of the lemmings who perched on the curtain rod, cocking their heads at me and threatening to jump. When you were ten, an orphaned fox adopted you. It showed up on the doorstep as if it had an appointment, and lived under your bed for years.
Our squealing, cawing, growling house drove me mad, but I let you splint the wings and set the bones. When you were thirteen, I found you covered in blood in the kitchen, crouched over a male wolf who looked dead already. In your head you were as clinical as a surgeon as you triaged its wounds. Four weeks later, the wolf licked your face once and was gone.
You weren’t like me, it was true. You couldn’t hear thoughts. I hoped that also unlike me, you wouldn’t get pregnant and stay in Shaktoolik for the rest of your life. If you could practice on the animals, you could go to vet school. Your skill was too important to be hidden away in our little town.
But you never wanted to leave. Even when I looked into your daydreams in high school, I saw you working on sprained paws in the tourist dog-sledding outfit, or vetting for the reindeer farm.
“Just apply,” I pleaded. “You can always work on the reindeer farm in the summers when you’re home.”
“Mom, would you stop that? Do you know how rude it is to eavesdrop on someone’s thoughts?”
“Just finish the application by Monday,” I said.
You were dating the Petterssen boy then. He would have worshiped you if you’d let him, but I knew you didn’t love him. What you did, you did to spite me. On Sunday night, you went out and got pregnant.
When I heard it in your thoughts one night three weeks later, you were standing behind me in the kitchen doorway. I turned, and you flinched as I came toward you.
I slapped you so hard you stumbled into the door frame and bumped your head. Rodents skittered under the cupboards. The fox yipped from your bedroom upstairs.
“You couldn’t even let me tell you, without barging in and finding out for yourself.” Your voice cracked, you were shaking your head.
I was already sorry for hitting you, but you were stumbling out the front door.
“Wait, Anika!” You hadn’t even taken your coat. Your mussed hair gleamed in the moonlight as you ran to the Petterssens’. A crowd of lemmings peeked around my feet, and the malamute on the couch began to whine.
Just before I lost sight of you in the darkness, you turned around. “You know what, Mom? I’ve been able to hear your thoughts since I turned sixteen. But I know without invading your privacy why it’s important to you that I leave Shaktoolik. So why is it Mom, after butting into my thoughts all these years, you still don’t understand that I want to tend animals here. That I want to have a baby and stay.”
You lived with his family after that. For nine months, you wouldn't let me come near.
Lacy Petterssen called when there was trouble with your labor. She said you’d been having contractions for twelve hours and your water still hadn’t broken. She said she wanted to call sooner, but that you begged her not to.
When I arrived at the Petterssens’ house, thirty head of reindeer were crowded around the windows. The glass was too steamed up to see inside. The reindeer stood and waited, their flicking tails the only movement on that silent frozen street.
The family parted as I came into your room and they obeyed when I sent them out, though the Petterssen boy wouldn’t go until you nodded.
You were ashen, lank-haired, and covered in sweat. I wanted to kiss your head and your eyelids and your fingertips. I wanted to sit on the bed and rock you, but there wasn’t time.
“Mama,” you said. The fear in your eyes would have struck me down where I stood if my twenty years of Angakkuq healing hadn’t already set my hands into motion.
“What do I do?” Even as the terror brightened your eyes, your fierceness hemmed it in.
“Be still,” I said, “and hold on.”
I checked you. There was the baby’s head, and there was its neck, the cord wrapped around it.
“I’m going to do a perineal cut,” I said. You nodded.
I cut you as carefully as I could. I brought my poor granddaughter into the world, but she was already blue and gone and when she came out, and too much blood came with her. Your daughter was a big girl, her mass of dark hair wet and shiny like your first seal. She’d torn you just inside. You’d been bleeding for a long time, but her head had blocked it until now. I wrapped her in a blanket and gave her to you. I turned away as your put your lips to hers, and tried not to hear what you were thinking to her.
You must have seen my head turn, because in an act of forgiveness you spoke aloud to her. “I wanted so many things for you,” you whispered.
I worked and worked, stitching you up. I’d almost gotten the tubing set up for a make-shift transfusion from my own arm, when you told me to stop.
I’m going, Mama. You looked out the window, listening to something I didn’t hear.
I suppose we were both right, in a way. Your spirit was too big for Shaktoolik, but you were never meant to leave it. One by one, the reindeer filed out of the yard.
Over the next six months, wounded animals slowly returned to the house. They weren’t looking for you. They acted as if you were already here, and they healed almost as well as if you really were. The fox finally let me touch her, the other animals let me come near enough to feed them a bit of chewed meat or some milk. Did you send them back to show you’d forgiven me, or are you here somewhere, just out of sight?
Some evenings, the fox sits on my lap in the dark living room. I twine her tail around my fingers, and see that her fur is turning white. The snow will come soon. The animals comfort me as they make the sounds of settling for sleep, and I marvel at all the secrets a girl will keep from her mother.
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