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"Come In..." (Excerpt 2)

After supper I walk back to my tent to stoke the fire, and then I return to the cabin. Approaching the front door, I hear a drum beat, strong and resonant, and the sound of laughter. I shuffle my feet loudly, then knock just in case, and everything inside comes to a stop. “Come in,” I hear Heimo say, and when I do, they all burst out laughing. Edna is quick to tell me that they are not laughing at me. The radio is tuned to a station, which is playing Eskimo music, out of Barrow, a coastal town on Alaska’s North Slope. Rhonda says that Edna and Heimo have been dancing. When I encourage them to continue, they look at each other sheepishly. Then the girls weigh in, “Please, pretty please!” Heimo and Edna agree, and Krin turns up the music. “Ready, Mom?” Heimo says. Edna moves her arms in slow, beautiful arcs, as if she were a longtime follower of the Grateful Dead. Rhonda tells me that in Eskimo dances women imitate the movement of waves. Heimo’s motions, on the other hand, are abrupt and powerful. Men, Rhonda explains again, enact the story of the hunt, the violent spearing and harpooning of walrus and seal. When the music stops, Heimo, who spent every spring from 1976 to 1981 with the Eskimo hunters of Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island, adds that fifty years ago when a young man from Savoonga killed his first seal, the elders removed his left nipple to commemorate the occasion; when he killed his first walrus, they removed his right one. When drums introduce the next song, everyone encourages me to dance. Edna, again, moves like the ocean, and Heimo teaches me my steps. I follow as closely as I can, but manage only the savage lunges, the simulated harpooning. The girls laugh at my efforts, hooting and nearly falling off their sleeping platforms.

We listen to a few more songs and then I return to my tent to feed the fire again. I throw two logs into the stove, and when I am convinced that they are burning, I walk back to the cabin. Heimo is dressed in a long, plastic butcher’s apron and rubber surgical gloves. He has been working on the wolverine fur for the last three nights and now he is nearly done. His sinewy forearms strain and bulge with each sweeping knife stroke, as he “fleshes” the fur. The fat and flesh curl like wood shavings. When he’s done with the body, he fleshes the wolverine’s foot pads. Then with his knife, he splits the lips. Only the ears remain. He makes a fine cut on each ear and turns them inside out. Then he tacks the fur, skin-side up, using pushpins, onto a five-foot stretching board shaped like the blade of a canoe paddle. Lifting the stretching board toward the ceiling, he hooks it onto a nail.

Heimo throws the shavings of fat and flesh outside and returns to the cabin. “Done,” he announces, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his wrist. “Finally.”

Nobody pays attention though. Edna is sewing, Rhonda reads a teen magazine, and Krin is sounding out words from the dictionary. Trying to grasp the nuances of a new word, she announces, lisping slightly, “You all are so con-spir-a-tor-ial.” Rhonda looks up from her book, getting the gist of the word, smiling mischievously, and suggests that since this is my last night with them until April we should all go sledding. Heimo is scrubbing his hands in the plastic wash basin. “Not at 44 below,” he says. Krin agrees to go, setting the dictionary aside, then Edna, then I. “We’re feeling conspiratorial,” I say to Heimo. “Are you in or out?” Krin challenges him. “Out,” Heimo shouts. “Definitely out,” at which Krin and Rhonda jump up and tug at his shirt and pat his bald head. “Okay, okay,” he says, relenting. “I give up. Sledding it is.”

Ten minutes later, bundled against the bitter cold, we gather on the slope of what the girls call House Hill. The full moon, which won’t set until morning, hangs just above the spruce trees, casting the Brooks Range in a hauntingly blue light. Heimo looks on while Edna and Rhonda get settled on a large piece of plastic, hoping to be the first ones down. But Krin is too quick. “Look out for the Suicide Sled,” she shouts, grabbing another piece of plastic. Then she lets out a triumphant scream, and hurls herself head first down the hill.

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