Fall 1618

The southwestern shores of what would one day be Alaska




TWO DEAD seals weighted down my father’s kayak. My older brother’s was burdened with only one. My kayak was free of any weight but my own. Though ahead of me by several lengths, their judgment was palpable, easily cutting through the heavy layer of tanned seal intestine that made up my parka. I shivered as much from their scorn as the increasing cold.

Already ice was beginning to form. The sky, a cloudy dark gray even at the height of noon, reflected on the surface of the dark sea, which was only broken by the white of small waves. And the wind—cutting, frozen. Warning.

In a matter of days, my family would leave our fishing camp and rejoin the rest of the Yupik tribe at the village for the winter season. We’d already stayed later than usual. We weren’t in danger. Not yet. But we would be soon if I didn’t begin to do my duty. It wouldn’t come to that. It never did. Each season before, my father would pack up his wife, three daughters, and his son and return to the village before true danger was imminent. He would also take me along. Though I knew he wouldn’t see me as his second son until I completed my obligation. Until then, I was just another mouth to feed, a toddler in a man’s body.

A head emerged from the darkness at the side of my kayak. Large dirt brown eyes stared up at me, whiskers trembling as the seal smiled. She wanted to play. I could almost hear her thoughts. Stretching out to stroke her muzzle, I paused. I couldn’t touch her. Not with the part of her dead brothers covering my hands.

Instead I lowered my voice. “Go, little one. No playing today. Dive deep.”

More trembling of whiskers, and then she was gone.