15 February 2011

Chapter 56: "Chittyna Indian Village," Pt 2


Chitina Indian Village
 Chittyna Indian Village in 1927    --Candy Waugaman Collection

          “Where’d you get that dog, Michael?”

          “Your friend Abbey Webley mushes them. She said this one was too independent for her team. I took it.”

          “My friend Abbey. Nearly forgot about that strange white girl. How’s she doing, Son?”

          “She’s married to another strange white person.  He traps and builds cabins for other white men, but he mostly drinks.”

          “Does she seem happy?”

          “She and auntie Violet still giggle like school girls whenever they get together.  They both seem happy to me.  That’s where I see her most--over at Auntie’s place.  Violet helps her raise the dogs and run the team.  They drink wine and giggle.  That’s what they do.”

          “That’s what I remember from years ago. I guess some things don’t change very much.”

          Tikanni jumped out of the brush, nearly knocking Michael down.  The two watched as he rushed ahead toward Cathy’s home, disappearing around a bend.

          “I knew you’d be back when the last train came through.  I told Mom to be expecting you.”
          “That explains that.  I wondered what she meant when I first appeared and she told me she heard I was coming. I never told anyone.”

          “It was me, Dad.”

          “So did you figure out what the long word meant?”

          “Ket’chee ten’eh thloo da kee ? It’s the train, isn’t it?”

          “It means iron trail machine. That’s it, Son. Your great-grandfather Chief Nicolai nick-named the man who was behind it Ket’chee ten’eh.   That was the Great Man, Stephen Birch.”

          Inside the primitive cabin Cathy had the fire built up to where the cast iron was almost red. The large common area was hot. The smell of a moose stew, heavy in carrots, potatoes, and onions, and filled in with rice made Johnny wonder why he had not returned sooner.  Then he remembered that he’d just sent up the rice and some of the vegetables with Rosalene less than two hours ago. Michael sat down on a small chair, after taking off his heavy new coat, and began removing his new boots.

          “You got him new clothes, Johnny?”

          “He rode down to the hall in his summer shoes. He couldn’t walk home that way. He’d freeze. You should never have let him outside without boots and a heavier coat, Cathy.”

          “Maybe if you’d been here for him and taught him right, he’d have better habits, ”  she snapped back.

          Johnny’s relationship with Cathy had never been as good as it should have been.  Cathy never understood Johnny.  She was attracted to Johnny, but had nothing in common with him. Johnny had thought about the situation a long time, before concluding that he was probably lucky.  Cathy never found one man who would stay with her for very long, but she had a long string of companions.

          “Will you be back soon?”  

Chitina Indian Family
A Native family in Chittyna: Charlie Goodlataw  --UAF Archives

          “What do you mean, Cathy?”

          “You know what I mean.  I can see it in your eyes.”

          Cathy knew what Johnny was about to do, but she did not understand, nor did she care to try. She had given birth to his two children and raised them for most of a dozen years without him. Johnny was impressed that Cathy had proved to be such a good mother, even if she was not his choice for a life-long companion.

          “I’m going to Kennecott one last time.  I’ll be back in time for leftovers from this stew.  I’m taking Michael.”

          “I knew you would.  I think I’m beginning to understand you better, Johnny.  Go there. Take Michael. He wants to go anyway.  You two are so much alike. I don’t understand how a son you abandoned could love you so much.”

          “I don’t either, Cathy. I’m lucky to have him.  It’s all my fault that I made such bad choices.  I admit that.”

          “Rosalene is mad at you.  She never talks about it, but I can tell.”

          “So can I, Cathy.”

          Johnny leaned his chair back.  He caught himself on the table top before the chair fell over backwards. He was happy to be there with his two children and have a warm place to stay that night, just as he had for the last two weeks.   It almost felt like the old days.  This was where Nicolai and Helen had lived. The cabin was always Johnny’s.  He and Cap built a large addition so Nicolai could stay there when the shee-ya was in Chittyna. Cathy moved in after Emil died to help Helen.  She never left. Shortly after she moved in, she gave birth to Rosalene.

          The cabin had an unusual design seldom seen in Native villages in those days.  Johnny added a high ceiling and a loft when he and Cap built the new addition to the original sod-roof log cabin. Johnny’s relatives and friends considered the loft area to be exclusively his. Cathy honored Johnny’s place, and never went up there, nor did she let her many companions and friends enter the loft.  Even while Johnny was absent for those eleven years, he still kept a presence there, thanks to Cathy’s respect for him.

          When Michael was nine, he moved into his father’s loft.  He took his father’s old tools and cut a hole for a small window on the end, after salvaging glass from a deserted trapper’s cabin.  Michael was handy with carpenter tools.

          Johnny had built three sleeping rooms downstairs. That was enough room for Cathy.  She did not need the hot loft. At the time the boys built the large addition, Johnny’s mother Helen was thrilled.  But it was not long before she complained that the new place was much harder to heat.  Johnny added extra chinking between the logs to help make up some of the difference, but the loft area still took up much of the heat. 

Chitina cache
A Native cache at Chitina above the village     --Candy Waugaman Collection

          It was the night before the big day.  Johnny was alone in the loft.  Cathy, Rosalene, and Michael had gone to bed in rooms on the main floor. Thankfully, none of her male companions had shown up while Johnny stayed there.  He felt grateful that Cathy had the good sense to see to that.

          Johnny petted Tikaani, blew out the lantern, and climbed up the ladder into the loft.  He pulled off most of his clothes and  lay there in the dark looking downward toward the light caused by the flames that could be seen through the iron sliding grate.  A large kettle sat on the top of the large wood-burning stove, letting out enough vapor to render the dry winter air more comfortable.  

          The cabin was built close to the rocky bluffs.  Winds from high above swooped down over the village, blasting away at the heavy log walls.  The roof was of a heavy timber construction which resisted the constant onslaught of the winds, however the roof-top required occasional repair because the shingles tended to rip loose and fly off in the most severe gusts.  Tonight the winds and snows had combined to bring in a blizzard.

          Grandfather had such high hopes for his people.  He took so much of his time to teach us in his ways.  Yet I’ve fallen short.  At least I’ve lived an interesting life. I’ve gone well beyond my village and learned much. But did it do any good?  Have I really helped my people at all?  I wasn’t there for Charlie or for Cap or even for my son Michael or my daughter Rosalene.  I’m here now.  What should I do?  I can never stay here again.  Not after what’s happened.  Couldn’t live with it.

          The small window Johnny’s son had built rattled in response to a gust.  Johnny got up and looked out. The cabin sat at the edge of the bluff overlooking the railroad.  Johnny could see that the snow had begun drifting over the rails ever so slightly.  

          Forget my relationship to Cathy.  That was a disaster from the beginning.  At least she respects my presence here.
          Everyone is gone.  Soon the world I knew will completely fade away as the last train puffs off somewhere into an eternity I cannot contemplate.  I need to  see them again--at least my grandfather and Cap.  If I can’t find them on this journey now, I may never find them.
          Grandfather had achieved great things by the time he was eighteen.  I’ve learned much but done little.  Most of my people no longer even know who I am.  Why would they? What have I ever done for any of them? They’re even beginning to forget who Nicolai was. That’s the sad part. 
          Lord, help me.  I feel so lost up here.  Let this next day bring that which I need to become whatever I was born to be.   If it is not to be, then grant me the peace I will need to accept things as they are.  For my soul is not at rest.

          Below he thought he  heard the door creak open.  Was he dreaming?  He peered over the end of the high loft.

          My God, no. It can’t be! This is not what I asked for!

Chitina ghosts
Ghosts painted along two sides of an old log garage at Chitina in the 1950s.

          There was Cap looking straight up at him from just outside the wide-open door.  At his feet was Kay-yew-nee.  Just behind Cap stood  Nicolai himself. Johnny felt the unmistakable blast of cold winter air coming through the opened door.  The loft turned cold. The figures neither moved nor spoke. They simply looked up at Johnny, as if they were waiting for him to come down.

          Johnny bolted straight up, sweating profusely with  beads running down his bare chest.   The door was closed and the fire was quietly burning away, causing steam to lightly rise from the kettle.  But the dog had disappeared into the back room. And it seemed awfully cold for such a normally-hot loft. 

          I didn’t come here to visit the dead.  This is a nightmare.  What have I done to myself?

          He looked down on the floor at the base of the heavy door.  There was a line of fresh snow that had blasted inside from an open door.  He concentrated his vision through the dim light toward the door latch.  It was locked.  No one could possibly enter from outside.  He focused his eyes on the snow once again.  He thought he could see the front prints of a large dog down there.

          “Dad, Tikaani woke me up.  The room got really cold, and I thought I heard the door creak open and then slam shut. I’m staying up here with you.”

          Michael worked his way up the ladder, stepped over his father, and pulled himself under the heavy covers on the mattress lying on the floor next to Johnny. 

          “He’s back, isn’t he Dad?”

          “Who’s back, Michael?”

          Michael had already drifted off to sleep.  

          Johnny lay back down, staring at the steep, dark ceiling with the heavy log beams high overhead.  The wind buffeted the cabin, causing the whole building to shudder.  He felt like he was whirling through space.  

           The soothing sound of the wind brought Johnny back into harmony with himself.  He was further reassured by the presence of his son who had insisted on being there with him, probably because he was badly frightened.  If Nicolai and Cap were out there somewhere in the cold darkness of winter waiting for him, so be it.  He would prepare himself for it. 

          He was tired of the strange new world, which had seemed to have left him behind somewhere in the 1920s, anyway.  He pulled the heavy covers over himself and let the sound of the blasting winds comfort him.

          A lone train whistle reverberated somewhere in the distance.  It sounded hollow and even ghostly.

          Strange.  Nothing should be running out there this time of night.  Sounds like old 71. It had it’s own distinct sound.  But I’m told that one’s no longer running. Never will again. I know it’s 71.  Has to be.  What’s it doing out there? Is it coming for me, or my son? Is that how Shee-ya and Sla’cheen arrived?


          He sat up so he could see his son sleeping on the next mattress.  Michael had a very peaceful look on his face, in the innocent manner of Johnny’s  beloved younger brother Charlie. It was reassuring.

          Long live our people of the Saganni Ggaay and the Ket’chee ten’eh thloo da kee.  May we ride its rails through this land in the shadow of Uk’eledi forever.  

Last Train Out
Last Train Out of Chitina, November 11, 1938    --Cordova Museum

Continue with 
Chapter 57: "The Last Train Ride"

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