“This is your last chance to back out,” Phil said to me over the crackling phone.
Several days of clear, calm weather had lured many men in Tununak out into their boats to hunt seals. Now the wind had returned, sending the men home, and Phil, the school principal, had been able to meet with the village elders’ council and with the Tununak school board. They had endorsed his recommendation that I be invited to teach music and English in their remote village.
“The job is yours if you still want it,” Phil said, less crackling coming through the line now. I knew that he was only half-joking. “Congratulations.”
“I don’t know why anyone would want to build a village there,” the personnel director for the Lower Kuskokwim School District had grumbled into the phone in Bethel, two weeks before. I had called to inquire about the position the day the job announcement arrived in my Boulder mailbox, on a sunny morning in mid-September.
“Tununak sits right on the edge of the Bering Sea, totally unprotected, no trees for 125 miles,” the mans Southern voice drawled. “The headlands at each end create a wind tunnel that funnels all the turbulence and weather right down into the village. The wind blows 50 miles an hour all winter, and half the time you can t even land a plane. Tununak is the foggiest, windiest village in the Delta—as bad as the Aleutians, I think. And wind means cold. Wind chill can bring the temperature down to 90 degrees below zero.”
I tried to say I was used to cold and that í liked winter, but he kept on talking.
“Your house won’t have running water, you know. You’ll have to haul water and dump your own honey bucket. There’s a good oil furnace in that house, though. Forced air, if I remember right… Where do you live? Colorado? Well, think about it some more, and in the meantime we’ll take a look at your file.”
Competition for the job was stiff. The personnel director had over a hundred qualified applicants, most of whom had applied, as I had, through the University of Alaska Fairbanks Teacher Placement Center. He and the principal had narrowed the field to ten, then to three. Phil and the Tununak school board had made the final decision.
“Of course I still want the job,” I said to Phil, my hand tightening around the phone. Perhaps, at last, one of my wishes had come true. If I couldn’t play high notes softly on my flute, and I wasn’t advanced enough to audition for a good graduate school, and I never seemed to fall in love with the right man—well, at least I could move to Alaska.
“Good,” Phil said. “How soon can you get up here?” I requested two weeks to extricate myself from my apartment lease, my part-time job as a high school orchestra teacher, and my schedule of 26 private Suzuki flute students. I gave away or sold all the belongings I could bear to part with and locked the rest in a Boulder storage locker. I packed enough dried and canned goods to last until I could send my first mail order to Anchorage for food. Then I scurried through stores and catalogs, purchasing on credit the long list of bush gear that Phil’s wife, Ginger, had patiently described over the phone.
On October 21, 1986, a Twin Otter buzzed down out of the clouds, gen-dy popping the ears of seven Yup’ik Eskimos and one kass’aq strapped into seats behind the cockpit. A pile of freight, mail, and baggage filled the space behind them, secured with yellow nets of rope.
One wing tilted toward the grey sea, the plane banked left under grey clouds, and I caught my first glimpse of Nelson Island. I did not know, then, that during the next five years I would learn some of the most important lessons a person can learn. Nor did I expect that my journey—the inner one and the outer, the one I have been making since before I can remember—would begin to become so clear. I had a premonition, though.
It happened in the Anchorage International Airport. I arrived on a dark, sleeting Sunday, the only day of the week when buses didn’t run downtown. Not looking forward to a four-hour layover before boarding the flight to Bethel, yet not wanting to spend $20 on a cab, I took a walk around the airport.
The Kodiak brown bear, the snarling wolverine, the bald eagle, and all the other animals and birds frozen in glass display cases only heightened my sense of disconnection. They reminded me of the one other time I had been in the Anchorage airport—with Michael, my former flute teacher, the man I had dragged to Alaska from Boulder five years earlier for a rainy three-week ferry-hopping, hitchhiking, train-riding trip that he would describe later as “nothing but a miserable nightmare.”
Not everyone sees things the same way.
At the baggage-claim area, I decided to walk outside. I stepped out the door, turned left, glanced up, and stopped. Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, shone in the distance just beneath a thick band of grey clouds. The rounded summit, touched somehow by a ray of sunlight, gleamed white.
One of the reasons I had wanted so much to return to Alaska was my memory of the backpacking trip Michael and I had made up Sunrise Creek, deep inside Denali National Park. We had surprised a grizzly in the willows, backed off safely, and watched her for two hours through our binoculars. Her twin cubs boxed and chased each other as she alternately napped and gorged on berries.
A few days later we had camped at Wonder Lake, 85 miles inside the Park, and “the Mountain” had cleared off completely: a rare sight in summer. Cerise fireweed burned against centuries of snow.
Now Denali greeted me as Michael never could.
Smiling, I walked down the sidewalk. The wet air stank with automobile exhaust fumes, though. I decided to go back inside and find something to eat.
I knew prices would be high, but I bought a bowl of Manhattan clam chowder with oyster crackers anyway, for $2.50, and sat in the almost-empty cafeteria at a table next to the windows. No view here. Sleet began to drum against the glass. I swallowed the soup slowly, enjoying the warmth and the salty fish taste, but distance and loneliness crept in again. Maybe moving to Tununak wasn’t the right thing to do after all. I could still change my mind.
Last chance to back out?
I was 34 years old. I had never been able to talk any of my “gentleman friends,” as my father called them, into moving to Alaska with me. Not even Michael, who knew all the birds in Gregory Canyon by their calls and spent hours wandering the trails above Boulder looking at lichens and sedges, listening to leaves, breathing the butterscotch smell of ponderosa pine bark.
If I really wanted to live in the Alaskan bush—and I had wanted to, ever since my first visit to Alaska in 1973—I should do it now. Plenty of my other dreams had failed to come true. On the other hand, if I actually thought this wasn’t what I wanted, then I should be honest enough to find a pay phone, call Phil, and tell him I had changed my mind. It would be much better to tell people now than later. I had seen the phone outside the cafeteria, and I had the number right there in my pocket.
The next two hours passed slowly as I agonized over the decision I thought I had already made. I knew I would be far from my family and friends. I would have no access to the world of classical music—no public radio broadcasts, private flute lessons, or masterclasses. No live concerts. No opportunities to perform or to rehearse with other musicians. I knew, from teaching in public schools and later as a Suzuki flute instructor, that teaching could consume all my time and energy, leaving little or none for other creative work.
But I steered clear of the phone. I had always had too much pride to quit, even when quitting might have been smart. Besides, I was pretty sure I could handle this.
I was used to doing things alone, and I had some experience with other cultures. I had hitchhiked several thousand miles by myself in Europe, survived the Orient Express from Vienna to Istanbul second-class, and ridden the train from Moscow to the other end of Siberia in the early seventies with my father. My first teaching job had been in a Chicago inner-city high school, where one of my favorite students, a 22-year-old in tenth grade, had sharpened his pencils with a switchblade and had offered to steal me a color TV. At one time or another, I had learned to speak and read German, Russian, Chinese, and a little Spanish. The language in Tununak couldn’t be harder than Chinese, could it? Anyway, something was propelling me in this direction. Otherwise, how could things have evolved this far?
An hour before flight rime I walked to Gate A3, where the Markair jet for Bethel would depart. The waiting area was empty except for one overweight black-haired man slouched peacefully in an orange plastic chair, asleep. I sat as far away as I could, so I wouldn’t have to make conversation if he woke up.
Within 15 minutes, the waiting area filled with more black-haired people, plastic shopping bags under their arms, children in tow, elders leaning on canes. A tiny woman, slumped in an airport wheelchair, was rolled in by an airport attendant. The woman’s wrinkled brown face looked out, like a peeled avocado seed, from a bright green parka trimmed with silver rickrack. A quilted hood, edged with a circle of black fur and a circle of white, bunched behind her head like a pillow.
People wandered into the area in ones, twos, and threes, looking as weary as I probably did. Almost immediately, though, they recognized someone they knew and were shaking hands, hugging each other, smiling, laughing, talking in a guttural language I had never heard. The level of energy in the dead room shot up like a geyser. Even the woman in the wheelchair smiled. I realized these people were all Eskimos and that they must be speaking Yup’ik. I couldn’t understand a word they said, but I could guess what some of it meant. Suddenly I thought I had done the right thing.
The jet landed in Bethel in pitch darkness, broken only by red and blue runway lights. Inside the small airline building, I telephoned the woman whose number Phil had given me. She was the bilingual program administrator for the school district.
“I just got home a few minutes ago,” Paula said. “Do you mind taking a taxi? Good. Tell the driver to come to the BNA Apartments—Bethel Native Association. He’ll know what you mean. All these buildings are blue, so tell him to stop at the one closest to the antenna dish. My apartment is at the top of the stairs.”
After introducing her two children, giving me a quilt for the sofa, and explaining that the stains in the toilet and sink were caused by iron in the water, Paula began cooking spaghetti.
“Phil sure is looking forward to having you in Tununak,” she said, as she stirred the sauce. Her black hair showed glints of silver, and her complexion was darker than mine. I wondered if she was part Native.
“I’m looking forward to being there,” I said, thinking of the sudden energy in the airport. “I hope I can live up to Phil’s expectations… Do you speak Yup’ik?”
“Oh, no!” she laughed. “My first language is Lakota Sioux. I grew up on the reservation in South Dakota.”
This was interesting, but I wondered: how could a bilingual administrator not speak the language she was supposed to be administering?
At eight o’clock the next morning, Paula dropped me at the airport. Five other passengers and I walked outside in the dark to board the smallest plane I had ever been in. Having arrived in Bethel in the dark and now leaving in it, I had no sense of time or direction. Why hadn’t I thought to bring my map, instead of mailing it?
We flew in bumpy darkness and dim clouds for an hour, all the passengers asleep in the cold plane except for me. Then we began to drop elevation over grey water dotted with ice. The plane landed in the middle of a frozen field of nothing, stirring up snowflakes in the faint light. I thought of the fiat plains of Kansas.
When the back door opened, I could hear snatches of English and of what I would later discover was called “cowboy Yup’ik’” by people in Tununak This was Cup’ik, the dialect of Mekoryuk, the only village on Nunivak Island.
With another whirl of snowflakes and a roar, we were aloft.
I watched the water and ice below us in the dull morning light, hoping to see a seal. After perhaps 15 minutes of no seals, the plane tipped suddenly, rounding the bend of a rocky cliff. At a crazy tilt out the small window, I spotted a string of wooden houses hugging the sea, then a river winding behind them.
“Something something Tununermi,” the man in front of me said.
The plane circled the village—buzzing the local airline agent, I learned later—and I glimpsed several more houses clustered on a bald slope.
Phil said the school is on top of a hill. Then that big rust-colored building must be it. And that little grey house next door, beside those two huge tanks—fuel? water?—that must be mine.
I caught sight of a white door. Then there was nothing but grey sky, grey water. The pilot finished circling and the plane levelled. Noise in the cabin rose again to a roar and, my ears still popping, I felt the wheels touch ground.
We coasted to a stop near an orange wind-sock and a shiny brown pickup truck, and the pilot jumped to the ground. The co-pilot ducked his head through the cockpit opening and wormed down the aisle to the rear of the plane. I could hear him scuffling with mail bags and boxes, shoving things toward the open door as he had on our previous stop. I pulled ski mittens over my polypropylene gloves, gathered my camera and two flutes, and smiled at the woman watching in the seat across the aisle. Trying to look like I knew what I was doing, I stood up halfway and hunched toward the rear.
“Welcome to Tununak,” the pilot said, offering his gloved hand as my boot groped for the footstool he had placed on the gravel. “What brings you out here?” He handed down my duffel bag from the tail of the plane, but that was all.
“I’m the new music teacher. English, too, I guess. I came up from Colorado.”
I wasn’t sure he had heard me very well. The wind whistled around the edges of the metal door. Above us, the co-pilot was re-arranging boxes and crates, shoving and grunting, evidendy trying to make room for outgoing mail and freight.
“Have you seen two boxes that say Colorado on them?” I yelled into the wind, aiming for the co-pilot s ear.
“Boxes? Colorado? Nope, no sign of them here. Did you check them at Bethel?”
“No. I checked them all the way through from Denver. Denver to Tununak.”
The two men looked at each other and laughed.
“You can’t do that,” the pilot on the ground said. His blue eyes twinkled, making me notice a Roman nose and a neat, brown beard.
“Your boxes are probably still sitting in Bethel by the conveyor belt, waiting for you to haul them to the counter. We’ll take a look around when we get back, send them out on one of the flights next week. Don’t worry, they’ll turn up sooner or later.”
“Okay,” I said, trying not to sound concerned and not to let this man iuster me with his eyes. I bet he knows he’s good-looking. Those were my food boxes and my blankets and sheets. And my pillows. “Thanks.”
I glanced around for a man who might be the principal, but the only person I saw was a black-haired woman in tennis shoes. Bulky in a rip-stop nylon parka and polyester pants, she leaned over the open tailgate of the brown truck. Slowly, she pushed cardboard flats loaded with red and green cans of pop toward the back. Then she straightened up. With one gloved hand on her hip, she waved me over.
“Good luck,” the pilot called, winking.
“Get in,” the woman said. “Its cold.”
Thinking suddenly of the rustle of yellow aspen leaves against a deep blue sky, í heaved my duffel on top of two crates labeled potatoes and carrots, and opened the door. A blast of hot air blew in my face from the heater and a little girl in diapers and black braids scooted closer to the steering-wheel.
The woman put the truck in gear and steered over the frozen mud toward a narrow plank bridge. A fine dust of snow glittered against a brown hilltop under an overcast sky, and ice skimmed the puddles in ruts and potholes. No trees. I crossed my legs in my new jeans and felt the little girl staring at the pointed toes of my shiny brown high-heeled leather boots. I could see I was going to have to start the conversation.
“Hello. My name is Carolyn,” I said over the noise of the heater. “Thank you for picking me up.”
“I’m Sara.” The woman kept her tyts on the road. “This is Robin.”
The truck bumped over the wooden planks of the bridge. Still not looking at me, Sara spoke again.
“We didn’t know if you came in today or not. Its very windy, last few days.” She sighed. “Winters coming. October already, almost November. I have still so much to do. Too much work. But winter comes, whether or not we are ready.” At last, she smiled. “It always does.”
All I can remember of the view out the window that day—inside the hot truck, with Robin’s big black eyes, her thumb in her mouth, the smell of new vinyl seats—are the faces. Round, browned faces, most of them boys’, behind the chain-link fence in the old B. I. A. school playground, arms punching a tetherball. Then girls and boys running, running, and jumping, jumping. Chasing and laughing. And some of them stopping to stare at the truck then waving, staring and waving.
We wound up the hill and stopped in front of the rust-red building I had seen from the plane. Sara didn’t look at me and she didn’t turn off the engine.
Maybe she’s going to park and come in later.
As soon as I pulled my duffel from the back, though, Sara drove off. I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t think she had said goodbye. I had, hadn’t I?
I walked inside.
In a tiny office crowded with boxes and the green glow of a computer screen, a boyish-looking man with pale blond hair and pale blue eyes introduced himself as Phil and offered his sheet-white hand. His Yup’ik clerical assistant, Gabriel, also shook my hand. Gabriel was as handsome as the pilot, but with dark brown eyes, a clean-shaven face, and thick, shining black hair. It would be weeks before I would realize that I was taller than he and almost all the other people in the village.
Phil gave me some forms to fill out for the district office in Bethel, then took me to each of the three secondary classrooms. He introduced Mary, the only Native teacher on the faculty, and the eight members of her freshman/sophomore English class. The students were editing poems they had written and stapling them onto big sheets of colored butcher paper.
All I can remember of that first glimpse of the students—besides their dark eyes intent on me, “The New Teacher, “all of them turning quiet when I walked into the room, their Eskimo faces polite, curious, all looking alike to me, so I couldn’t remember their names—are the worksheets. Not in Mary’s class, but in the junior high. The junior high did worksheets in English and spelling and social studies. Finish one, dutifully do another. I thought of Black Beauty, how I read it as a child, startled, and cried at the way the bit slides easily into the horses mouth—until she discovers what its for. By then its too late. I couldn’t help it. I thought of bits and horses.
Mary seemed younger than I—in her mid-twenties, perhaps—and very-energetic. She had permed black hair, bright dark eyes, and a round face. She spoke with her class, sometimes in Yup’ik, sometimes in English, and she smiled a lot. But she didn’t smile at me.
Next I met Grant, who taught social studies, jewelry-making, and small-engine repair. He had blue eyes and a brown mustache, wore a T-shirt and jeans with a big ivory belt buckle, and stood half a foot taller than I. The eight students I had met in Mary’s class now hunched over their desks, taking a test. At the back of the classroom, Grant flashed a big grin and shook my hand.
Ginger, Phil’s wife, taught science and yearbook. She moved about the room, gathering dirty glass slides and petri dishes, as four girls pasted-up photographs. Ginger s thick, frizzy brown hair exploded behind tight barrettes, and red wire-rimmed glasses slipped down her nose. She seemed confident, almost brash, but very friendly.
Scissors, rulers, colored pencils, bottles of rubber cement, and metal film canisters lay scattered on the two tables where the girls sat. They talked and teased in Yup’ik as they cut and pasted. They had pleasant round faces and wore makeup and dangling earrings. One girl’s shiny black hair was cropped in a pixie style, another had a kinky perm, her hair more brown than black. The other two girls had thick straight black hair that reached halfway down their backs. When Ginger introduced us, they each smiled and shook my hand lightly—my fingertips, rather. Then, seeming more interested in pasting than in me, they turned back to their work, still giggling.
Phil returned to his office to take a phone call, while Ginger showed me around her room. It contained a menagerie of microscopes, seeds sprouting in paper cups, a life-sized replica of a human skeleton, a jar of cow brains. Bright grow-lights illuminated a steamy glass case, crawling with purple and green plants and pink blossoms. Two white rats skittered in cages next to a napping spotted snake, and a solitary tarantula flexed its hairs.
As in the other two classrooms, the walls of Ginger’s room were not walls at all, but moveable dividers that reached only halfway to the ceiling. Voices from the other two classes filtered over, as well as laughter, shuffling and—I would discover later—film soundtracks, music, scolding, and the beeps and loony tunes of computer games. Wafting over everything was the familiar school smell of freshly baked bread. A thunder of feet and books closing signalled it was time for lunch.
“Grant can show you the lunch line,” Ginger said, putting on her parka. “Glad you’re here. See you later.”
I followed Grant into the gym and through the line, spooning oily lettuce into one compartment of my cardboard plate and canned peaches into the other. I had been a vegetarian for twelve years and preferred natural foods, so I passed up the hamburger macaroni, jello with Dream-Whip, and Hawaiian Punch. I took a piece of warm white bread, a glob of margarine, and a plastic fork and spoon and paper napkin. Then Grant led me to the “faculty lounge.”
The place where the teachers ate had been intended as a shop room, Grant said, but was used mostly for supply storage. It had a cement floor and a metal grid staircase, with steel railings that led up to the furnace room. A bright fluorescent tube, suspended from the ceiling two stories above, shone down like a searchlight. Crammed in the small space were a table and a few plastic chairs, a television and VCR on a cart, a band-saw, some welding equipment, and various cardboard boxes.
Grant and I squeezed in at the table with two special education teachers, who introduced themselves as Brian and Judy. Judy said they had moved to Nelson Island from Chicago six years before and had a son and daughter in the high school. Judy and her husband looked only a few years older than I. They described the self-contained classroom where they taught 11 junior high and high school students with special needs. The students had various emotional, mental and physical problems, most caused by meningitis or by fetal alcohol syndrome. One, a 21-year-old named Luke, was severely retarded.
“There are several guitars up in the attic,” Judy told me. “Some are in better shape than others, of course.” She laughed. “I think I’ve seen an old electric piano somewhere, too, and an autoharp.”
I knew I would have to scrounge instruments at first, even though Phil had hired me to help spend $35,000 to establish a music program. Phil played clarinet and wanted the school to have a band, partly because he thought the village would like it and partly because he and his wife wanted their sons to have music instruction. Now that the pipeline boom was over and the world price of oil had dropped, Alaska was in a recession. The state legislature had begun cutting back its generous funding for rural schools, and Phil feared this might be the last year that money would be available in the district budget for “extras” such as music.
“In some respects, this school has everything,” Grant said, flashing his big grin again. “Even a full set of gymnastics equipment—balance beam, parallel bars, rings, the whole bit. We knew we better not put it together, though, unless we wanted to risk getting sued. Who in the bush is going to know how to teach gymnastics, or want to? What would you do if a kid got hurt out here? But I swear, somebody in the district office must’ve been a P.E. nut, because when these schools got outfitted, every one of them got boxes of gymnastics equipment. And that stuff ain’t cheap.”
All three teachers lit cigarettes and continued talking, mostly among themselves. I was surprised they hadn’t asked me more questions than what state I came from and had I been to Alaska before. Later, I realized that both Brian and Mary, the Native teacher, were unhappy that I had been hired. Both wanted to teach English, but neither was certified. Mary, a business education major, had taught the high school English classes for two years, and Brian, certified in special education, had taught the junior high for one. Both teachers were popular with their students, but the district superintendent was pushing for school accreditation. When she discovered that Tununak had no certified English teacher, she told Phil to hire one.
I laughed when I found out later what Brian had said when he heard I had been chosen. “What we need around here is a Jeep, not a Rolls Royce.”
After lunch, I returned to Phils office and we discussed my schedule. Phil had been able to convince the superintendent that it was best to wait until January to assign me to Mary’s high school classes, since the semester was half over. The junior high students, though, had had three different teachers since August, due to scheduling problems.
“One more teacher isn’t going to hurt,” Phil said.
He decided I should teach junior high social studies, English, spelling, and reading; high school yearbook; and two elementary music classes: first through third grade and fourth through sixth. He said he would show me around the elementary school in the old B.I.A. building at the bottom of the hill, the next day.
“Would you like to see your house now?” he asked.
I followed Phil across the narrow boardwalk, about a hundred yards to my new home. Forty feet below, the Bering Sea rolled to Siberia. The bay was clear, but far out on the horizon I glimpsed blocks of ice. Open space stretched as far as the eye could see, and the wind blew.
My house, a square frame structure not quite 22 feet by 22, had been the contractor s shack when the new high school was built. The shack was not intended for winter occupancy. Various improvements had been made by previous tenants—most notably by Lois, a middle-aged spinster whose primary domestic concern, I would learn later, was peeping Toms; and by Todd, a counselor and special education teacher who had been involuntarily transferred to another village after five years in Tununak. Some people, including Phil, had accused Todd of dealing marijuana and bootlegging whiskey.
“A joint costs $10 here, whiskey $100 a bottle,” Phil said, as we stood in the kitchen. “People who get into drug dealing and bootlegging in this village can make a pile of money. Todd was smart to leave. He was very popular, so youll probably get some of his old visitors.”
Lois had insisted that an arctic entryway and attic be added to the shack for more insulation, and Todd had built the kitchen counters and shelves and had installed a sink. He had run a length of thick rubber pipe from the sinks drain down through a hole cut in the floor. Since the house sat on blocks several feet above the tundra, the pipe could drip onto the ground below.
Todd had also caulked the windows and the cracks between the floor and walls with red and green modeling clay that he had gotten, apparently, from the elementary school. He had submitted a request for the free-standing forced-air furnace I had heard about in Boulder over the phone. An old iron pot-bellied oil stove as big as an electric range still squatted in the kitchen beside the doorway to the living-room. Someone had scratched a big smiling face on the soot-blackened damper.
“Those things are smoky and impossible to regulate,” Phil said. “You’re fortunate that Todd requisitioned this furnace and that it actually came in on the barge this year.”
He pointed out other amenities: a 32-galion grey plastic trash barrel for water storage, a two-burner hot-plate, and a large electric refrigerator. The L-shaped living room/bedroom seemed crowded with a brown and white striped sofa, a grey formica table with chrome legs, four tan vinyl-covered chairs, a mustard-yellow swiveling easy chair (who could need so many chairs?), and a laminated fake oak desk, bureau, and double bed. In place of a closet, a line of four-inch nails stuck out of the wall across from the bed.
I grimaced at the furniture, but felt fortunate to have any at all. I had never owned a sofa or a bed. The morning that I refused to make love with Michael anymore, because I wanted him to marry me and it seemed like he was never going to, he had dragged all my furniture out onto the deck of his Boulder condominium. There wasn’t much—just a few second-hand pieces given to me nine years before by Brad, another man I might have married. Michael had dragged all my furniture out onto his deck, plus my particle-board flute music shelves that he said could cause cancer, all my clothes and books and bathroom things, and then had disappeared for three days. That was when I knew our relationship had to change.
Of everything in that pile, my favorite was a small blue stained-glass lamp. I had bought it in an antique store, when I attended music school and lived in an attic in downtown Denver. In moving to Alaska, I had given up many things, but not that lamp and not Brads furniture. I couldn’t bring myself to do that, not yet anyway. I had considered bringing the lamp along, since I had written under its mysterious blue light late into the night for years. But I had a feeling Nelson Island wasn’t a place for stained glass.
“Stock B.L.M. furniture,” Phil said, startling me. “You’ll find this stuff all over the Delta. The district must’ve gotten a good deal at one time, from Sears or Monkey Wards.”
“Well, here’s the new honey bucket room,” he continued. “How do you like it?”
He pointed past the head of the bed to a space adjoining a set of shelves. I laughed, wondering what I was supposed to see. Stepping closer, I noticed unpainted lines where the shelves had extended before.
Phil told how he and Charlie, one of the school maintenance men, had decided to create a space for the honey bucket. An hour before my plane landed, Charlie had sawed through the middle of the shelves and removed the right half of each. He hammered a plywood box together to fit around the rusty, five-gallon paint pail that had been Todds honey bucket. Then he hinged a square of plywood over the box to make a lid, sawed a hole in the middle, and nailed a black steel toilet seat and cover on top. He positioned the paint pail and the lidded box in the new space and ran a long length of rubber pipe, like the kind in the kitchen, from a hole in the box, out the dry-wall and plywood framing to the outdoors, and up the outside wall almost to the roof. This would vent odors above the snow drifts.
“Todd kept his honey bucket out in the entryway, where it didn’t smell much in winter because the porch was unheated,” Phil said. “But he was a bachelor. I always thought that a little rude, not to mention how cold it must have been to sit out there. Everybody had to walk past the thing when they came to visit. You know, the roll of toilet paper hanging on a nail, everything. Todd didn’t seem ro mind. But Charlie and I thought you might prefer something a little more civilized. You can hang a curtain or something across here. Did you bring all the things my wife suggested?”
I had. In addition to the two boxes that I hoped were somewhere in the Bethel airport, eight others were in the mail.
“Good,” Phil said. “One last thing: fire escape. As you probably noticed, there’s only one entrance to this house. That means if there’s ever a fire in the kitchen, you’ll have to bail out the window.”
He nodded toward the furnace and the only window in the room.
“I’d keep something heavy nearby—a walrus bone or something—so you could smash the window quickly if you had to, without cutting yourself. I don’t mean to scare you. This house has two ceiling smoke alarms, and Charlie just put new batteries in them yesterday. But its important to be prepared.”
“You’ll want to get some candles, too. The village generator goes down every now and then, especially in winter when it gets overloaded.”
I told him I liked candles, and several were already in the mail.
“Good,” he said, reaching for the doorknob. “Oh, and I’ll have Charlie put a padlock on your door. Looks like Todd took the old one with him. You’re lucky to have been assigned to this village. There are problems with drugs and alcohol, but they’re nothing compared to what teachers encounter in much of rural Alaska. Most families here keep their problems to themselves. It’s unlikely that anyone will bother you, especially up on this hill. You’re pretty isolated from other houses.”
1 nodded again, just glad to be in a house instead of an attic or a condominium. Now I could play my flute any time of the night or day, and no one would notice. Especially if it was windy.
Phil opened the inner door to leave. “This is a very traditional village. ï think you’ll find you like it here. Well, see you at our house tonight for dinner.”
I fluffed out my down sleeping bag, spreading it over the blue and white mattress ticking, and plugged in my alarm clock. I had seen two stainless steel shower stalls in the girls’ bathroom at the school. No one had told me to wedge a piece of wood between the hand railing and the shower button in order to keep the button down, then let the water run for ten minutes until it got warm. It would be a few days before I took my first cold shower, and several more before I mentioned it to Mary and discovered the secret.
I finished unpacking the rest of my duffel bag, wondering what I had gotten into this time besides $32,000 starting pay. I dropped my high-heeled boots on the ratty brown carpet and pulled on my new felt-lined Sorrels. It didn’t seem cold enough outdoors for such heavy gear, just muddy, but the knee-high rubber boots that Ginger had told me to buy were lost somewhere in the Bethel airport. Then I thought of Govinda and the Buddhist watchmaker, and I smiled.
Michael, do you remember that spring night when we lay in bed without covers, trying to cool off, and I told you about a book I had read, The Way of the White Clouds? It was by an Englishman, Lama Govinda, and it had been a beacon for me in Florida those nine months I studied flute with Mr. Gilbert. There was a story in it about the time Govinda met a Buddhist watchmaker. Do you remember the story?
Govinda was travelling from Burma into China in the early 1940s. He had heard of a little boy named Maung Tun Kyaing, who was said to be in full possession of his pre-natal memory and knowledge. Govinda had heard that the Governor of Burma was so impressed by the boy, that he encouraged him to travel all over the country and visit prisons. Thousands of people listened to Maung Tun Kyaing wherever he went, and Govinda hoped to meet him.
When Govinda reached the outskirts of Bhamo and the start of the caravan route to Yunnan, he stopped at a monastery and was offered sleeping quarters in a spacious temple hall. He set up his camp-bed in the eerie silence, near three marble Buddha statues. His watch had stopped and he wanted to re-set it before going to sleep. He walked about, trying to find out the time, but no one in the monastery knew English. So when he awoke the next morning and saw people coming into the hall, he had no idea how long he had slept.
He got up from his camp-bed and, soon after, a watchmaker entered the hall, a man who spoke English.
Govinda was embarrassed to find that the man had come all the way from down to the out-of-the-way monastery, because he had been told that Govinda’s watch was out of order. The man had come to repair it. When Govinda convinced him that the watch was in perfect working order, the watchmaker laughed.
“I don t mind the journey,” he said, “for it has given us the opportunity to meet” Govinda, too, was pleased, especially to have found someone who spoke English.
Tea was brought and they settled into a friendly conversation. After several minutes, Govinda mentioned what he had heard about the boy, Maung Tun Kyaing. “I wonder if I will ever have the chance to meet him?” he mused.
“Oh,” said the watchmaker, “there is nothing simpler than that. The boy has just arrived in Bhamo and will be preaching in a neighboring monastery today.”
“What a strange coincidence!” Govinda exclaimed, “that my way should have brought me here exactly on this day without having the slightest indication that Maung Tun Kyaing was even in this part of the country. It seems that my mere wish was sufficient to bring about its fulfillment.”
“Surely it is the right wish,” the watchmaker said, “that draws us to the right place. Nothing of importance happens accidentally in our life.”