When I came north,
I only learned that nilak is freshwater ice, for drinking.
No one told me the names of the ice
that will drink you —
igalaujait, the ice “which looks like windows”
qinu, the slushy ice by the sea
qautsaulittuq, the ice that breaks when tested with a harpoon
kiviniq, the dent in shore ice where the water has sat during the tide, and
iniruvik, the ice that refreezes over cracks the tide makes —
or refreezes over you.
No one told me there is no name
for the ice that speaks
the language of living
it seems all there’s ever been is Chukchi Sea ice
and enough of us to drill holes in it, fish through it,
We forgotten ones, born
cold, in the days of night,
suckling fire, weaned onto moonshine
in our fathers’ fishing huts.
We who at two raised our first glass
to the poor bastards who would never
be us one day, those caught out
All of us waiting
to understand the holes in the ice
and the cold ones under the frozen sea,
waiting to be the fish, the fire,
the water under everything.
At five last night, our fish Fishie died. At five this morning,
Rick and I drove our daughter Willa to the Greyhound
to a year learning to survive
on water and air,
among those who knew Thomas.
Home at noon, cleaning our empty fishbowl,
I could swear I saw Willa in a soap bubble, lying down like
last night when she should have been packing,
saying she was “relishing a last soft bed moment,”
I didn’t mean to drop the bowl
or cut myself on the broken glass.
It starts with bright yellow
garbage bags blooming in the back
of a dusty black 4 x 4 pick-up truck,
glares at us
until we put on sunglasses to keep from burning
our winter eyes.
We born of the old ways start to sleep
until the sun fades in late afternoon.
We dream of blueberries.
We stay up late, drinking beer,
watching the ice rise, waiting.
When the river runs again,
the white woman will paddle back to her cabin.
Lying alone in her wool underwear,
in her goose-feather sleeping bag,
dreaming of the lost white boy
with the ponytail
and the big hands.
Me and my friends, we’ll line up
to work construction
over at the site for that new hotel.
There is always some truth
somewhere, if you can find it.
Thomas went looking.
He left Germany to circle the woods and rivers of Wisconsin
to be a seeker among seekers,
to teach others to open their eyes
while he flew up to the frozen woods and rivers of Alaska
to forage alongside the hungry bears
He promised his friends he would walk from the cabin in Ulaneak
down to Kobuk,
and he would fly home.
On November 10, 2012, his plane headed south
with an empty seat.
Those who searched his borrowed cabin by the river
found his heavy parka, his guns, his dream
journals, his unfinished
letters, a map with a hole
where the north passes to Noatak
should have been.
In Kotzebue, they say come June,
the thaw will free him,
wherever he has frozen.
This is true.
It may not be the truth
he was looking for.
I dreamed I was Thomas
No snow, no fire, no ice,
only old man Thomas, sitting in smoke
weaving black mukluks from raven feathers
singing the song of his own death.
I couldn’t remember the melody or the story
when I woke up, only the salt taste of
Chukchi Sea, Kuskokwim River, Dead Man’s Creek.
I never met Thomas, but something about the song
I couldn’t remember made me want to see
how long I could cry.
I once cried an entire summer
but summer is short here.
Here in Kotzebue
come May, when it begins
to thaw, the sea ice
walks up our front steps, pushes
through our locked doors
into our living rooms,
parks itself down,
Last year, it got a good laugh from a Sears ad
featuring self-defrosting refrigerators.
This year, when the ice comes
I’m opening the doors wide,
setting out a meal.
And leaving a chair waiting
in case it chooses
to bring Thomas along.
We stand in a circle
under the moon.
The trees of night
sweat around us.
No one touches anyone.
I wait for someone to say
It was his time.
No one says anything.
A wood duck wails, trails off.
Lette starts humming, quietly
the tune Thomas always whistled
to keep a steady cadence
While Lette’s voice climbs up
“Goin’ to run all night,”
everyone joins in.
I shiver and step back,
then can’t stop.
The circle moves with me,
all steadily walking back,
Not that he was a church-going man,
more one to live his truth alone in the forest,
far from trees
beaten down into kneelers.
Not that come Sunday, he’d mind a little
godly boogie woogie in the backwoods,
a samba for the saints
with his squirrel hides drying on the line,
a little slow dance on a cold night,
a two-step and a sway
around. Lord, my back still burns
from the hands that man
wasted hugging trees —
Not that a one reached back to him
when he lay his body down
for a final baptism
in that ungrateful Ulaneak River.
Now I’m not a born-again kind of woman,
God forgive me,
but I wouldn’t mind
if he’d rise up like a stalagmite
from his damn bed of ice
for even half a minute,
long enough to bless me,
with those hands.
You who could start a fire
with just those big, scarred hands,
you who wanted to read books on fire,
on forest safety,
glossy pages that all burst into flames
when you held them.
You who were only safe in the water,
I could not stop you from paddling north, alone
into that cut in the earth
where the flooding rivers freeze higher
I could not stop you
from diving through the shelf of ice below
and sinking into the buried highlands
where, by now, the cold winds have blown
all the fire from you
into the ice blue land
and water and sky.