It was midnight of our last night in the cannery, and all twelve of us who had been assigned the fish house had been working since seven that morning. All day and into the light-filled night, we had been cleaning fat salmon as they slithered out of the tin chutes directly from the salmon boats. White fish bellies were burned on my lids when I closed my eyes, and my ears sang with an exhausted hum.
When the warning bell rang, down slid silver salmon, spilling, wet and shiny, onto the long, wooden tables. We each reached for one with our yellow-gloved hands, but when Rosie, who had to stand on a packing crate to reach the table, grabbed for hers, it shot out from her small hands so fast, it blurred as it flew to the end of the table and out the gut trough before anyone could snatch it.
“Damn,” said Rosie. “Good-bye, Mr. Fish, no one hundred dollar for the cannery.” Even the Seattle girls we called the cheerleaders laughed, and we all looked over our shoulders to make sure no bosses were snooping who would dock Rosie’s pay.
“Come on, Dee, let’s go on the fire planes and make a lot of money,” I said, slitting open the belly of the large salmon I had just grabbed. “Just think of the adventure—fighting fires in the high mountains of Alaska, meeting all kinds of characters, making big bucks.”
“Oh, Ace,” Dee said, frowning. She pushed at the brown-string hairnet the cannery boss had made her wear over her afro. “This fire plane stuff is getting on my nerves. You are free to mess your life up however you want to, just leave me out of it.”
Rosie laughed. “You two been fighting about the fire planes all summer. I can’t wait to see who wins. I jokes but really you can make a lot of money.”
“It’s ‘you two have been fighting,’” said Ida, Rosie’s big sister, standing next to me. Ida had on a white T-shirt that looked newly bleached and ironed, despite fourteen hours in the cannery. Her hair was up in a tight bun held in place by a beaded red barrette. Across from us, Dee’s hooded sweatshirt and overalls had the same neat appearance. But Rosie’s crooked braids were coming undone all over her head, and my blue bandanna kept slipping down and letting my long, blond hair string out into my face, getting into my eyes.
Outside the seagulls that always circled the cannery looking for scraps screeched with joy at finding the feast of a whole salmon in the gut trough that dumped back in the Yukon. Those of us with fish sliced their heads off swiftly and tossed them, their eyes still gleaming, into the large bins behind us. The fastest slimers had cut the salmon bellies open, stripped out their guts, and were tracing their blood veins with their sliming knives until the meat glowed pink. I pictured salmon lying on silver trays on white tablecloths, far from the stinking cannery.
“Fish house, Rosie,” I said. “Since you don’t have a fish, tell us a hairy man story.”
“Okay,” said Rosie, “but I’m so tired I gonna fall asleep and gut my own hand.”
“It’s ‘I’m going to fall asleep,’” said Ida, who was attending college in Seattle.
Waiting for Rosie to start, I gazed out the window. Wide as an ocean, the Yukon moved slowly, reflecting the dim glow of the midnight sun. The cannery and salmon village sat by the shore of the Yukon, and around it stretched the flat expanse of tundra, covered with spongy grasses, tangled brush, and countless sinkholes. No roads could be built through it, and the only time it would be passable was when winter froze the soppy ground solid, and even then only snowmobiles could traverse the distances between villages in the area. Now, in the summer, the only way in and out was the floatplanes. When they dropped from the sky, splashing into the Yukon, they were a startling reminder that the outside world still existed.
Rosie began, in her slow, strong voice, each English word heavy, as if carrying a Yupik word on top of it. “The hairy man, and all hairy mans, become what they are because no one loves them. We Yupiks say love your children good or the tundra will take them and love them into wildness.”
Next to Rosie, Ida was frowning and sliming her fish with hard, fast strokes. All summer she and Rosie had been teaching Dee and me about the Eskimo way of saving every part of the summer catch, of surviving hard winters on carefully dried fish and preserved game, the ways of her grandmother, who raised Rosie and Ida. Ida liked teaching us these things, but she did not enjoy the hairy man stories.
“Do you believe any of this superstition?” she asked Dee.
“Not really,” said Dee, pointing her sliming knife at me, “but Ace, she believes it hook, line, and gill net,” and she laughed.
“Shut up,” I said. “I want to hear.”
“Yeah,” said Boo Man Smitten, a Tlingit from Ketchikan. “Rosie, you got to tell about how he can run for miles.”
“Oh yeah, that’s important. He can run good, his feet so fast they don’t sink into the tundra. Auntie Claire once saw him run, and the way she said it, he moved like a scared bird that’s flying from the bushes. I just got to go scratch,” Rosie said and stepped off her crate.
From the end of the table, one of the cheerleaders groaned and said, “I wish these mosquitoes would all just die off!”
“This is really the slow way to make money,” said Boo Man, looking up from his fish. “I’m for sure gonna go on the fire plane and make me one hundred dollars, maybe two hundred dollars a day!”
“Ace,” said Dee, sticking her knife into her fish’s belly, “remember: we get free rent in exchange for feeding the teacher’s dogs. Not if we go chasing around Alaska, fighting fires and letting the dogs starve.”
“We can get someone to feed them.”
“Well, that’s not even the point. I’m not risking my scholarship by not getting back in time for school.”
“We’d make it.”
“No, we wouldn’t. And do you think your parents are going to pay your tuition forever?”
I actually did think that, or at least thought my parents and their money should be the last of my considerations, but I did not want to sound like a spoiled white girl, so I didn’t answer. As Rosie walked back, her clean hands not yet in her gloves, she stood on her tiptoes and stretched up to touch Dee’s afro, as she often did.
“Would you stop touching her hair,” said Ida, and Dee just laughed.
“Some people go down to the lower forty-eight to college just to get too smart for themselves,” said Rosie. “So if some Ida Bean can stop talking about manners, I’m gonna tell you guys a hairy man story where my auntie touches the man.”
Another batch of fish came out of the chute and we each grabbed one. Libby Johnson, an elementary school teacher married to a bush pilot, said, “This is it. My damn feet are killing me.” She then sat down on one of the packing crates, propping her feet up as she lit a Marlboro. “I’m not leaving until I hear the rest of Rosie’s story. Ten years of hairy man stories, I’ve never heard of someone touching him.” She arranged her coat like a blanket over her legs and made a soft back rest with her backpack, smoking slowly, like she was prepared to stay a while. “And,” she said, “I got to know what Ace is planning to do.”
“Ace doesn’t plan,” said Dee, sounding like ten years of patience with me had finally given out in this one long night in the cannery. “She just does.”
“Damn,” said Rosie, “you two sound like old ladies.”
“After seventeen hours of sliming, I feel like an old lady,” I said. I studied the rainbow-colored scales of my fish. There were lots of different salmon: coho, sockeye, king, humpies, chum. When we first came up, the streams in the village had run red with salmon that had spawned and, having served their purpose, were losing fins and rotting in the water. What a life. Dee and I would have already had babies by now if we had been like our mothers but we wanted something different. We would be women who had it all. We could go on the fire planes and make lots of money, maybe enough to go travel the world. Our lives were as limitless as the tundra.
The bell went off and more glittering fish poured down, and we sliced the heads off the new batch. Rosie yawned, scrunching up her valentine face, and began telling again. “Well, you know this hairy man. He was an orphan, being raised in the Mission School in Bethel, and the priest gave him no love, so the tundra took him when he was not even tall enough to see over the salmonberry bushes. A few years ago, up to my Auntie Claire’s place, fish began to disappear out of caches up the Igulawak River. Everybody knew it was the hairy man eating well, but most people weren’t that mad because it was a good season.”
“Sure was,” said Boo Man. “I went on the boats that year and got me a new pickup.”
Ida said, “Yeah, a new pickup for a village with exactly two miles of road. Where’s that pickup now?”
Boo Man ignored her; we were all used to Ida’s comments.
“Anyway,” continued Rosie, “most people said let the man feast, but Joe Lloyd told everyone he was gonna shoot the man, cause he was eating so much out of his cache.”
Someone from the end of the table said, “He the Joe that beat Esther John’s sister almost dead?”
“Yeah,” said Rosie. “He’s a mean drunk, everybody knows. Anyway, my auntie was getting worried ’bout the man being shot, so she talked to the elders and decided she was gonna tame him.” She stepped down off her crate. “Ida, I got to hit the can. You finished you fish, do mine, okay?” People groaned at having the story interrupted, knowing going to the restroom would take time as her apron and gloves would need to be hosed and removed.
Auntie set a trap for that hairy man and left a fresh king salmon where he could see it…
Johnny Kotsebu, a Haida from Prince of Wales who was always humming country and western music as he worked, said, “I’m hungry. Why isn’t the break bell ringing? It’s been more than two hours.”
“It’s probably the last load, and they just want to get it over with,” said Boo Man. Most of the seasoned cannery workers nodded their heads in agreement. A few went to the sink to wash their gloves and scratch.
A tired, drunk feeling from having repeated the same motion over and over for hours seemed to have slipped inside me and blurred everything outside: the high grasses, the slow water, the crude plywood structures of the village. I tried to look at the people at the table instead of the Yukon.
I remembered our Fourth of July, the Yukon from the house we were caretaking. How fireworks had rocketed off the fishing boats, their explosions only faintly visible in the never-darkening sky. The Bean sisters had brought us Eskimo ice cream made by their grandmother, a mixture of whale blubber, wild berries, and sugar that tasted like sweet beef jerky. From the living room couch, we had watched the whole village pass on the town’s one unpaved road.
One group had waved and yelled for us to join them. Rosie had waved them on and told me, “Ida doesn’t drink and she never has.”
“Grandma never has to worry about me,” Ida said, very pleased that Rosie had stayed with us.
A few days after that, someone had brought a ceramic jug to the little cafeteria, and when it was uncorked, the whole room smelled of liquor. Some people instantly left while others clustered around the jug.
“Now watch things fall apart,” said Ida.
When we went back to work, they started passing the jug around under the table, and when it was my turn, Dee said, “Ace, the stuff even smells poisonous.”
I drank it anyway and it was so strong that an old bee sting on my lip started to hurt again. When I could talk, I said, “Aren’t you curious how it tastes?”
“I don’t need to taste it; the expression on your face tells me exactly how it tastes. Not good,” Dee said.
“Why are you so serious these days?” I asked, wishing she would join in the fun.
“Because, Ace, I can’t afford to just experiment with life like you do.”
I had turned away and passed the jug to Ida, who threw it out the window into the Yukon. Rosie shouted something to her in Yupik, then refused to talk to her sister for the rest of the night.
My memories ended with Dee yelling at me.
“Ace, wake up,” I heard Dee say as my salmon, headless and slit open at the belly, slid down the gut trough.
Rosie returned and began her story as if she had not stopped. “Anyway, my auntie, she went to Joe Joe George, an elder up there, and said, ‘How can I tame the man so he can stop stealing fish before Lloyd shoots him?’ and they, of course, told her the usual.”
“Give him food with human saliva,” said Boo Man.
And Libby piped up, “I’m a white person but even I know you got to walk backward to approach a hairy man.”
“Yeah,” said Rosie and then she fell silent for a while, as if she wanted our undivided attention for this part. “So,” she said, starting up again so suddenly it jolted some of us awake, “Auntie set a trap for that hairy man and left a fresh king salmon where he could see it and covered up her human odor with whale blubber before she hid in the bushes to try and trap him.”
The next bunch of salmon spilled on the table, and no one missed any this time.
“She saw him come out of the bushes. She said his eyes were those of a wolf, very wild, but that his mouth and nose were still very human and that through all the hair on his body, she could see he was just a young man, no more than twenty, and completely naked. He took the salmon, which was wet with her saliva, and tore its head off with his teeth. The saliva worked; his eyes became calmer. He began to eat slower and throw the bones out instead of eating them. Auntie Claire got so excited, she ran out of the bushes and touched his hair-covered hand, soft as kitten fur. But she had forgot to run backward, and as soon as she touched him, he was off, gone too fast. He dropped the half-eaten salmon and never bothered the caches again.”
“Boy, was she brave,” said a cheerleader, and several people nodded in agreement.
“Oh, Rosie,” said Ida, “Claire lives so far from anyone, she’s always seeing things just for company.”
“Well, then, what about Uncle Chester? He’s a very sensible guy, and he said he saw the hairy man the next week, two hundred miles away.”
“How’d he look then?” asked Boo Man.
“Still wild, but slowed down because of the saliva on the salmon,” said Rosie.
“How sad,” said Libby. She stood up and put on her coat. “Well, that’s the night for me. Hope you guys come back up next year; it’ll be a better run, I’m sure. It’s been a fun summer.” She walked over to me. “So, Ace, you going on the fire plane or back to the lower forty-eight with Dee?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ll see, when the time comes, how I feel.”
“Wow, you young girls sure have a lot of freedom these days,” she said.
“And hopefully Ace will live long enough to enjoy it,” said Dee.
Rosie interjected, “Why worry about that—everybody’s going to die!”
“Listen,” said Boo Man and everybody fell silent as the sound of a plane landing on water reached our ears. “Fire plane!” he bellowed. “Must be a big fire for them to come now. Lots of money this time.”
He and Rosie finished their fish and hosed off their aprons. “Ace, you got to come now ’cause those fire planes don’t wait,” Rosie said.
I looked at Dee. “Come on, college is boring. How can it compare with firefighting?”
“Ace,” Dee said, slapping her headless salmon onto the table, “only a white girl would worry about being bored.” Suddenly everyone looked down or got really busy with their fish. “You know, one day there is gonna be a revolution, and it’s gonna be the whites on one side and the blacks on the other, and you and I, we’re gonna be on separate sides.”
In all of our friendship, spanning from childhood into our twenties, Dee had never said anything like that before, and for a moment my blurred vision got strangely sharp. I felt stunned and embarrassed, as if something ugly about me had suddenly come out.
“Ida, pick my paycheck up, will you? Ace, you coming?” said Rosie, her pack slung on her back.
“You shouldn’t go,” Ida said to Rosie, “Grandma will worry,” and then turned to me and said, “Usually Rosie only lasts until her first paycheck, then she spends weeks drinking in town.”
“So?” said Rosie. “Ace, come on.”
I found myself saying, “Hell, I can’t go, my grades are bad enough, let alone missing a semester.”
Everyone, even Dee, looked surprised. Then Dee said, “Oh, go if you want. Remember the details. I can stay a few days until the teacher gets back.”
“I’m not going,” I said, realizing that I never had really planned on it. Rosie started to say something but stopped and looked at Ida. As half the table emptied out, Ida said to no one in particular, “This is why we natives have to call back the white men to run the cannery we own. We don’t know how to own anything.”
The last load of fish came down the trough, and those of us who remained cleaned them in almost slow motion. We did not talk about hairy men or revolution, but what we would have for breakfast. When we were done with our fish, we stood around waiting for instructions from the bosses. Johnny put his hands into two fish heads from the barrel and began to open their mouths like puppets as he sang, “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.” We all laughed till tears came to our eyes and didn’t stop when the cannery boss came to declare the end of the season. It was five o’clock in the morning, and as Ida, Dee, and I hosed off, we decided we would fry up eggs and bacon at the teacher’s house as a celebration of the season’s end.
The Alaska morning had finally come, with a sun that had not dipped down below the horizon but had stayed up with us cannery workers all night. We walked home single file on the path to the teacher’s house, passing the dock where the Japanese crew sat, talking softly among themselves.
The fire plane lifted off the water and gleamed for a moment in the silver morning sky. As the sound died away, we walked in silence, Ida and I following Dee through the salmonberry bushes, through the thick grasses, until a nearby rustle froze us to a stop. After a moment we started walking again, and the rustling noise moved with us for a moment, then moved away, picking up speed, finally fading out into the tundra.
Dee said, “Ace, don’t even think it!” and I let my breath out as her laugh rolled out across the endless grass of the tundra.
And so our get-rich summer in Alaska—almost forty years ago—came to an end. Our net profit was two flannel-lined jeans jackets that we bought in the cannery store. Mine is long gone but Dee, in her way of keeping things, still has hers, hanging in her closet among dry-cleaned silks and suits, the smell of tall grasses and wild fish hidden deep in the pockets.
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