A Tilt of the Earth
Hanging precariously from a tiny rusted nail above the blackboard, the metal-fused clock with bronze roman numerals struck 9:00 AM. Each chime shook the massive piece, threatening to joggle it onto the filament-haired, fragile skull of elderly Mrs. Regibald. Oblivious to the threat, she leaned against the blackboard and shushed the boisterous students stumbling into their desks. “The Arctic Circle is our topic for the next few classes,” she declared. No impact on the decibel level of the room. She clapped. “Every minute of noise is five minutes of extra lecture today.” Silence. She turned to the blackboard, the back of her red sweater streaked with chalk dust, and wrote: imaginary line around the earth at approximately 66 degrees, 33 feet, and 47 inches. Tapping a piece of chalk on her palm in a one-two beat, she scrutinized the class with wide, sunken eyes. Bored expressions and slumped backs. “These numbers, of course, refer to positions on the earth. We studied longitude and latitude a few weeks ago, so I expect you to know these terms.” She wrote: almost 10,000 miles in circumference. “You all know what a circumference is. If not, find out before the next exam.” Grunts and groans emanated from the students. “Oh my, a rumble of grumbles,” she commented in a bemused voice. More moans and plaints. Unperturbed, Mrs. Regibald continued. “Now, what parts of the earth does this imaginary line pass through? One hand jutted in the air, the only one that ever did. “Yes, Silvie?”
The girl popped out of her seat. “Greenland, Alaska, parts of North Asia and the Scandinavian Peninsula,” then hastened to add, “and the Arctic Ocean.” She pulled her long thin ponytail, straightened her glasses, and surveyed the room with a triumphant air. As she stepped toward her desk to sit, the boy behind her kicked it sideways. Silvie’s feet slid from under her. She fell to the floor with a thunder-clap thud, arms flailing, her skirt hoisting above her waist. Students erupted in laughter and jeers. Silvie lay on her back, staring at the plaster and lath ceiling, detruding her skirt with shaking hands. She leaned on her seat to lift herself up. The boy shoved it away again, and Silvie tumbled a second time, inciting renewed explosions of hysteria. This time, stunned and mortified, she didn’t move. No one else moved. Suddenly, she felt someone’s hand on her arm, lifting her to her seat. Silvie gazed up with bewildered eyes, her inflamed face wet with tears. It was Clipper, the small boy who sat in the back of the room. She watched him as though he were orbits away. He collected her pencils and notebook and placed them neatly on her desk. Silvie put her hands over her eyes, sobs hardly audible.
Seconds passed before Mrs. Regibald reached Silvie’s desk, given her age, limp, and distance from the front of the room.. She patted Silvie on the head and sent Clipper back to his desk. "You should be ashamed of yourselves," she announced in a deep, severe tone. “Stay at your desks, sit upright, and no talking.” She approached the boy behind Silvie, dug her fingernails into his scalp, lifted him vertically from his seat, and led him out of the room. The boy marched stiffly alongside her, all bones without joints. The children craned their necks toward the door to listen. A few shouts from the boy, a hand slammed against a metal locker in the hallway, some footsteps, a screech, a man’s gruff voice, then silence. A minute later, they heard Mrs. Regibald’s short, uneven steps. She opened the door, donning a faint smile, and wiped her forehead with one of the handkerchiefs plugging her capacious pockets. A sleeve of her sweater was twisted above her elbow and her paper-thin hair bun at the top of her head rested against her right ear. “For our next class,” she announced, “answer these questions.” She tapped the chalk against her wrist and wrote: First, what is the history of the Bering Strait? Second, what is the meaning of the term, Midnight Sun? Third, why is the Arctic Circle drifting northward each year, and at what speed? Fourth, who are the circumpolar peoples? A slow-motion, unsteady twirl to the class. “That’s all for today.”
The students flew out of their prison desks, decamped with jabs and shoves, shouts, kicks, horselaughs, and giggles. The door closed behind the raucous banter, then quietude. The muscles around Mrs. Regibald’s mouth and eyes softened.
‘Are you all right?” she asked Silvie.
Silvie nodded, her head bent and shoulders hunched forward. She rubbed her eyes and turned to Clipper. “Thanks for helping me,” she muttered. Clipper walked to her desk, cupped Silvie’s hand in his, grinned at both of them, and left the room. Mrs. Regibald and Silvie followed him with their eyes. “He doesn’t talk much, does he?” Silvie asked.
“I’ve never heard him utter a word,” replied Mrs. Regibald, smoothing the girl’s hair. “Should I call your mother to pick you up?”
Silvie shook her head. "No, thank you. I live just a few blocks from here.” She rubbed her eyes again, tightened her ponytail with both hands, and took a long, deep breath.
They walked out of the GRAHAM SCHOOLHOUSE toward a spacious courtyard. Mrs. Regibald’s abridged steps, half-curtsies with pauses in between, earned little distance. Silvie lagged behind, shuffling her feet and shifting her knapsack from one shoulder to the other. They wandered into the radiant, vernal day. Ahead was the ancient ash, its gray bark of ridges and diamond shapes and its outstretched branches with pinnate leaves. A venerable matriarch sheltering her brood. Clipper was sitting on a bench near the sidewalk and ran to them. He reached for Mrs. Regibald’s hand. She squeezed his hand in hers. What a strange child, she thought, taking a few feeble steps toward Silvie’s home. “What kind of bird is that?” she asked, pointing to a white-breasted, speckled brown bird sitting on a nearby branch. “How can you tell that’s a maple?” indicating a tree to their right. Nature was just another Regibald classroom. "You see that fern? Why does it like the shade more than the direct sun?”
They stopped in front of a brick rambler. “Thanks for walking me home,” Silvie said.
“You’re welcome, dear.” Mrs. Regibald and Clipper started back to the school. A car horn sounded. TulaToo and Noot waved and pulled over to the curb. "Hello, Mrs. Regibald, everything OK? We stopped at the school, looking for Clipper.”
“Oh yes, Mrs. Tonraq,” replied Mrs. Regibald. "I'm so sorry. I should have waited for you. Clipper and I were just accompanying another student home." She paused and added, "Your son was very courageous today.” She patted him on the head. “He helped one of the students who was being bullied. He is such a kind boy."
TulaToo beamed. “Clipper, that’s wonderful.” She stepped out of the car and hugged him. “I’ll have to get the whole story from you, Mrs. Regibald, but we’re hurrying right now to pick up my husband. He's getting off work early so we can prepare for the celebration tonight." She took Clipper's hand. She smiled at Mrs. Regibald. "Will you be there?”
“Oh yes, of course, I haven’t missed one yet.” Mrs. Regibald replied. “In fact, I timed my lessons on the Arctic classes to coincide with your party.” She waved goodbye as Clipper climbed in the back seat with his brother.
TulaToo glanced at the boys in the rear-view mirror. “Clipper, get your finger out of your nose.”
They turned into a strip mall with Harbore Mechanics, and Auto Repair painted in orange and fluorescent-blue letters across the side of the only building on the property. Tools and engine parts, greasy rags, tires, and hubcaps were scattered around the narrow parking lot. All in crooked disposition, the four garage doors were open but blocked by cars with their hoods jutting up and boots protruding from underneath. Pye-Dog was standing with a group of men by the eastern entrance. He was always easy to spot --- the short, stout one with a toothy smile. The men were laughing.
TulaToo pulled up next to them. “Hi, fellas,” she said, “have you seen my husband?” Pye-Dog stepped in front of one of the men. “Oh, there you are. I couldn't see you.” She chuckled.
Pye-Dog laughed. “We’ve all heard that line a million times, TulaToo.” He crossed in front of the car to the passenger door, putting his hand on the handle. His smile dissolved at the sight of the man approaching him.
“Hey, little Eskimo man, where do you think you’re going?”
Pye-Dog’s hand froze. He turned. “I’m off at 11:00 today, Mr. Mercy.”
"My name’s Leon,” he snapped. “Get back to the shop. Now.”
“Sir,” said Pye-Dog, self-possessed, “I asked for this afternoon off more than a month ago. It’s on the schedule.”
“It’s not on my schedule, and that's the only one that matters, squat man. You’re working till 5:00 today.”
Pye-Dog’s fingers tightened around the car handle. “Sir, we have the Native Alaskan celebration at the restaurant today.”
Leon snickered. “Who cares?” He spit. “Now get back to work and tell your tribe to get out of our parking lot.” Leon scowled and leered at Pye-Dog with cold, menacing eyes. “I said, get back to the shop, Eskimo man.”
“Can’t do that,” said Pye-Dog.
Leon’s body stiffened. He lit a cigarette and tossed the match on the ground. “Listen, snow dog, work the rest of the day, or you're fired." Leon closed in on Pye-Dog, wrenched his hand from the car handle, and shoved him in the chest with his fists. Pye-Dog fell backward. Two of the men rushed over and lifted him to his feet. TulaToo jumped out of the car and ran to his side. Pye-Dog dusted off his clothes, nodded at the men, and put his hand again on the car handle. “Let’s go,” he said, glancing at TulaToo. They both got in without looking at Leon. “Drive away slowly, TulaToo. No need to make a fuss.”
They could hear Leon’s shouts and curses as they drove toward the highway. TulaToo waited a few minutes before speaking. “Who does he think he is?”
“He’s the owner’s son, that’s who,” Pye-Dog said in a weary voice. “Never win against that.” He turned around to face the boys. “Wish you hadn’t seen that,” he said quietly. “Not right to disobey your boss unless your boss isn’t right.” He turned back and patted TulaToo’s hand.
Noot leaned forward. "Way to go, Dad. He's a jerk. You can tell they all hate him.”
TulaToo glanced at her husband. “We’ll make it through,” she whispered.
The comforting words didn’t penetrate the walls of their worry. “I don't know how," Pye-Dog replied.
TulaToo knew his tone of disguised despair. She knew what was coming next.
“We don’t belong here, TulaToo,” he said, “we never will.”
There it was. Pye-Dog’s ancestral distrust. "We'll extend the restaurant hours, and the boys can help more," she said quietly. "We'll figure it out." Her soothing voice and words unnoticed.
They drove awhile in silence. Suddenly, Clipper tapped his mother on the shoulder and pointed to the side of the highway. Under a tall stand of aspens, hidden in thick brush, was a small animal lying on its side, its head and tail curled into its body. Noot shouted, "stop, go back. It's a little dog.”
TulaToo pulled over to the side of the road next to the dog. They rushed to the animal. Pye-Dog and Noot knelt beside it. Clipper glanced down, groaned, stomped his feet, and covered his eyes with both hands. TulaToo grabbed a beach towel from the trunk. But for irregular, shallow breaths, the dog lay motionless. His eyes were open but dull and unresponsive. Part of his right ear was torn off with a dry crust of blood outlining its edges. Blood oozed from a deep wound on his shoulder. “Coyote,” said TulaToo, “must have spooked before finishing the kill.”
“He’s in shock, almost dead,” said Noot, taking the towel from his mother and wrapping it under the dog’s frail, emaciated body. He lifted it gently into his arms. Its head hung limply over Noot’s arm. “The vet’s open till noon,” he said. “We have to hurry.”
Clipper closed his eyes and slapped his arms against his thighs. TulaToo stilled them with her own. "Pye-Dog, you drive. I'll stay in the back with Clipper." Noot slide into the front seat with minimal motion. Part of the towel was already saturated with blood. Poor little creature, she thought, at the whims of the wild. But she said nothing, handed the car keys to her husband, and got into the back seat. As they drove away, TulaToo looked back at the indentation of the dog’s body plainly mapped among the crushed, wet leaves.
They sped into town and arrived at the veterinary clinic fifteen minutes before noon. Clipper jumped out of the back seat and opened the door for Noot but, seeing the dog, started crying and pounding his fists on his forehead. Noot shouted, “Clipper, stop it. He’s not dead.” They hurried into the clinic. At first sight of the bloodied bundle, the receptionist scooped the dog out of his arms and whisked it away to an exam room.
Photographs of dogs and cats, rabbits and hamsters, parakeets, and turtles decorated the walls of the unoccupied waiting room. Children's drawings of undecipherable animals. Noot paced, Clipper rocked in a chair, and TulaToo and Pye-Dog sat on a bench alongside the window. They waited. The hour felt like five. TulaToo checked her watch, sighed and looked at Pye-Dog who was reading a magazine article about a schnauzer, glancing at TulaToo every few seconds. More waiting.
When the veterinarian appeared, they sprung out of their seats as if readying a salute. A tall, gaunt, balding man with kindly gray eyes, he looked first at Noot, then the others. “I’m Dr. Trille,” he said, “your little dog is going to make it." A pause and slight smile, then he continued. "A small miracle really, given all the blood he lost. Little fella has a strong will to live. I want him to stay here for a few days, keep IV fluids going.”
Tears, hugs, and thanks ensued in rapid-fire. Dr. Trille endured the gratitude with a benevolent smile. When Pye-Dog reached for his wallet, the veterinarian stopped him. “Oh no, sir, there’s no charge. We provide free care for rescues when they’re first brought into the clinic.” More gesticulating appreciation from Pye-Dog. As the family departed, Dr. Trille asked, “does this little fella have a name yet?”
‘Little,” Noot replied without hesitation, “his name’s Little. And he's mine."
They started for home, to the restaurant. A dense fog hovered over the highway, immersing the trees and hills in near opacity. The rhythmic swishing of the windshield wipers and the clattering of rain reverberated within the car’s interior. Pye-Dog relaxed his hands on the wheel when the sign outside the Red Raven broke through the brume --- WELCOME TO THE NATIVE ALASKAN CELEBRATION. TulaToo rushed into the restaurant, turning on lights and barking orders to the children. Pye-Dog hung the sealskin lanterns and paintings of the flamboyant Aurora Borealis and set tiny ivory animal figurines on the tables. Clipper and Noot carried in extra chairs. Fur hats, scarves, thick mittens and Inuit relics graced the countertops. Wooden and ivory masks of different animals --- bear, wolf, raven, eagle, and whale dominated the center of the room. Dishes of Siberian reindeer soup, arctic char, bannock, and aqutaq sat on tables.
“The Bladder Festival display goes in the back corner, same as last year,” TulaToo said. “Hurry, we still have to get dressed. The guests will be here any minute." They rushed upstairs to change into their traditional Inuit clothing. Bright-colored tunics and loose pants, sealskin shoes, extravagant fans of bird feathers, stone jewelry, symbols of the sea embroidered on the fronts of jackets. They descended to the restaurant to view headlights and taillights from both directions of Highway 61, floating like ribbons of white and red. Turning into the restaurant's parking lot came the regulars-- construction workers, maids, waitresses, resort employees, and bartenders. Then the tourists bejeweled and glittered. Pye-Dog and TulaToo greeted each guest with arms wide open. The fifth annual Inuit celebration had begun.
Drummers and professional Inuit dancers took the stage, the women throat-singing and waving feathered fans. The men stood behind them, stomping their feet and waving their arms to the drum beats. TulaToo lit a qulliit to warm the fish stew, and the boys passed around Baffin berries and blueberries. Still breathless from dancing, Pye-Dog made his way to the center of the room. Everyone looked his way. "We thank you all for coming. The Inuits believe that people have animal dispositions such as courage, perseverance, and protection of their young. We strive, as a people, to express these qualities in our everyday lives. We have seen many of these traits in many of you. Our lives are blessed, our homes and hearts enriched. Thank you for respecting our peoples’ histories, cultures, and rituals. Across the Bering Strait, our ancestors migrated from Russia and Asia to the Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. But this is now our home. You are our people too.”
Midnight. TulaToo and Pye-Dog waved goodbye from the deck as the last car pulled onto the highway. They lingered, inhaling the cold night air in a sky clear of clouds and fog. The iridescent sliver of a waning gibbous moon eclipsed the light of its nearest stars. Pye-Dog clutched her hand. “To Nunavik and our people.” He kissed her on the cheek.
Early Sunday morning, a soft knock at the restaurant's main entrance. "We're not open yet," shouted TulaToo, “Please come back in a half-hour.” She looked at Pye-Dog. “I’m exhausted,” she whispered, “Next year, I’m closing the restaurant the day after the celebration.” She glimpsed at him, hoping for a consenting nod. Pye-Dog shook his head slowly. “We can't afford to close for a day.” His voice cracked. “Especially now.” The knock came again.
“I’ll get it,” Pye-Dog said, “one of the neighbors must need something.” He opened the door to Montana and Leon Mercy. “Mr. Mercy!” he exclaimed, “are you here for breakfast? We open in a few minutes but come in.”
“Please call me Montana,” said Montana, extending his hand. “We’re not here for breakfast. This will only take a minute, and we'll be going.”
“Can I get you a cup of coffee at least? Freshly brewed.” Pye-Dog turned to call TulaToo, but Montana stopped him.
“No thanks, much obliged.” Montana checked the parking lot, making sure they were alone. “My son has something to say to you.”
Pye-Dog looked at Montana. “He told you what happened yesterday?”
“No, he didn't,” replied Montana. “Heard it from several of the men.” He paused. “You’re a popular man, Pye-Dog.” He nudged Leon with his elbow.
Lips like thin fresh scars, straggly tufts of chin hair, stiff posture, and arms crossed tightly across his chest, Leon exuded compressed rage. “You’re not fired,” he mumbled. “You can come back to work tomorrow,” He didn’t meet Pye-Dog’s eyes.
Montana nudged Leon sharply with his elbow. Leon glared at Montana, then stared at the floor. He unfolded his arms and shoved them in his pockets. “You still got your job,” he muttered to Pye-Dog.
Another Montana grunt. Leon twisted around. “That’s it, Pa, I ain’t apologizing.”
”Yes, you are,” Montana said in a grave voice meant only for Leon.
Pye-Dog interrupted. “It’s alright. I’ll be at the shop tomorrow morning,” he said, eager to end their argument. He extended his hand to Leon.
Leon winced and glared at Pye-Dog with unyielding, restive eyes. He dug his hands into his pockets and turned to Montana. “Let’s get outta here.”
Montana reached past Leon and shook Pye-Dog’s hand. “We’ll see you back at the shop. Means a lot to the men and me.”
Leon jerked open the door without looking back at Pye-Dog. They walked to the truck. “Why’s this door locked? grumbled Leon, tapping the window nervously. "Open up, and get me out of this dump."
Montana opened the unlocked driver’s door. He heard someone calling his name and turned to see Pye-Dog on the deck, squinting in the early sunlight, smiling and waving at them.
Montana waved back. He faced his son. Sunlight reflected off the truck’s white sheen. “You went too far, Leon. I'm taking you off the payroll. Don’t come back to the shop.” He returned Leon’s blank stare. “Find your own way home.” A pause. “And then find another place to live. I don't like the way you treat your mother.” He stepped into the truck, catching a glimpse of Leon in his rear-view mirror. Montana’s heart lodged like a brick inside his chest. To forsake a son.