Excerpt: From Chapter 4 - Dream Reaper, by John Schettler
There was something under the ice
at Steamboat Slough. You couldn't get anyone in the village to say what it was, but it had most of them scared half to death even to talk about it. The Eskimos, at least the older ones, seemed to find a spirit in every bough, bush, rock and stone of their world. Demons and devils were a convenient way to account for the unseen work of a pernicious virus. When a man was taken ill, it was really a devil that had hold of his body, probably hungry and tired from wandering around in the wilderness, and ravenous once inside the warm, blood rich body of a live man or woman. And if the man died, as many did when they were sick in the days before antibiotics, it was said that the devil would finally come out of his body, and show itself in the last agonizing moment before he breathed his last breath. "This is why you must leave the land of the Men," it would say as it called his name. "For I have eaten of your flesh and blood."
They would find him somewhere, his body frozen in a grotesque pose, the life and warmth drained away forever. The mask on his face would tell whether the
devil was fierce and evil; one to be avoided and feared by the other people in the village. Sometimes a devil's hunger would not be stilled, and it would prowl around the edges of the
village, taking the old and the weak first, and the children. The people would hide themselves in their cabins, and take down all the strips of smoked salmon and animal skins they hung on
wooden racks to dry. They didn't want the devil to see how well off they were—to see that this was a home where there was plenty of food, and good shelter, and many warm bodies to
satisfy its hunger.
When a devil stalked through the village in those days, St. Ann's seemed a desolate and empty place. Nobody home, the scene would say to anyone passing
by. None here but this scraggly wolf-gray dog moaning at the wind. No fish on the smoke-racks; no pelts, or sleds, or anything else. Go away devil, and find another place to eat and sleep.
There is nothing here for you—nothing.
The people would gather from time to time, and the headmen of the village would stand before them, wearing their amulet belts wound tightly around the waist,
and chant a warning to the devil while the hunters would brandish their spears and move like a circle of shadows around the elders. Other men would beat on the sealskin drums with tawny wands
of willow bush, and the strongest of the hunters would come forward in the end, bearing a feathered fan and thrusting it out before him with a sharp movement of his arm. Each feather stood
for the spirit of a deer, or a moose or even a bear. These we have taken, he seemed to say. See how many? Go away now, and find your own. Go and find the meat of a seal or ptarmigan and leave
Perhaps, if they could shame the devil, it would stop stealing the life of the children in the village. But some devils would not be shamed. They would not
listen to the sound of the sealskin drums, or pay any heed to the carved amulets on the belts of the headmen. They lingered on, festering like a rotting wound, and would not go away.
But the village had changed a great deal from those days. The mission was established just after the turn of the century and slowly transformed the people,
replacing their amulets with scapulars and rosary beads; taking down the totems and putting up crucifixes in their place. The shamans and village headmen lost face when a devil would come to
the village and they were powerless to drive it out. But the men and women who peopled the mission had strange new powers. They called the Demons by names that the people did not know:
measles, mumps, whooping cough, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and influenza. They had new medicine, herbs and potions, to protect against these newly named devils in the land, and they always
prevailed in the end.
Time went by and more and more white men came to the land to dig for gold and oil. By the time Daniel showed up the glut of oil money spawned by the north
slope excavations had transformed the Eskimo way of life forever. Each and every native was suddenly entitled to a share of the money the White Men paid to take the oil to the lower 48. The
village itself would receive a larger co-op share of the wealth, and it was money that brought the power of another world into the villages, and shattered the way of life that the Eskimo
people knew for so many generations.
Their names were the first to go. The Yupik language with its guttural clicks and tongue twisting vocabulary was simply too much for the white men to ever
understand. They could not know that holiktuk was a parka, that a kuspuck was a brightly colored hooded dress worn by the women. They could not remember proud names like Uktilohik, Elaitutna
or Alhalikmiuit, or ever hope to say them if they did. So, the first thing the white men did was to change all the names, and each time they did, they took away some of their power and reason
for being in the world.
You could not control a thing if you could never speak its name. So the white men called the people they found in Alaska, the proud Yupik and Ihalmiut people
of the north, by other names. They took some from the black books they carried and read from during all their ceremonies, and re-named the Eskimo people after elders from their own race. So
it came to be that the family of Kaminikuak was re-named after the bright red beans the people brought with them from the lower 48. Sometimes they used the name of a building or other object;
or names from their Bible. Everything was different after that. Now instead of Epeetna, and Alikanuk, and Katelo, there was Freddy Beans, and Mary Church, and Johnny Moses. Generations later,
these Eskimo families still bore the demeaning brand given to them by their white missionary friends so long ago, though some still clung to a part of their original family name, like the
Eskimos as a whole still held on to a fading remnant of their older culture. This would produce unlikely combinations such as Richie Tuluk, or Molly Ayulak. It was a compromise with the world
of the lower 48 that would devour them utterly if they did not give at least as much as a part of their name to appease that devil.
But the devil that lived under the ice at Steamboat Slough wanted more than a name; more even than the simple flesh and blood of a man or woman when it found
them alone in the dark. Daniel never could find out much about it, though he often prodded the village elders for stories about the old steamboat that came up river one spring, running
aground on the mud bank and sinking in the shallow water near the edge of the slough. When a boat that big floundered on the mud and sunk it was impossible to pry it loose before the river
would freeze again and fix it in place the whole winter long.
Once the ice closed in it would expand with the cold and force its way into the bones of the ship until it split the beams of the hull wide open. It would
never ply the rivers again after that, and people avoided it, saying it would bring the devils. The spirits would wonder what it was, and creep inside from under the ice to live in the
shattered remnants of the boat. The Eskimos would gather together and tell stories to frighten away the children's curiosity when they could, and Daniel listened closely to some of the
tales hidden away in the minds of the elders.
Something was under the ice. Something bad. It lived in Steamboat Slough and it was very dark and hungry. It was never safe, the elders would caution, to
stray among the broken ruins of the ship where it jutted through the ice like a bare whetted skeleton. Things could happen, and you might be taken by the thing under the ice. It would smell
the sealskin in your mukluks and reach up to grab your leg. And once you go under the ice in the winter your heart will freeze in just three beats. Then the devil will have your body there
all winter long, and it would chew and gnaw the flesh away and grind on your bones until they were gone.
That was the way they told it, years ago. Just like the old Elton John song Daniel listened to so often, there really was a kind of ‘Madman Across The
Water’ out in Steamboat Slough, and a boat with a broken back.
They probably still told the stories to the children in the village. The ice would freeze thinner around the wreck, Daniel knew. There
might be cracks and weak spots where a child could easily slip and fall into the frigid water below. Every story had its moral, so this was what he supposed the intent of the legend of
Steamboat Slough to be: just a warning to watch your step when you walked on the ice near the ruins of the boat. It was just a simple bit of practical advice wrapped up in a ghost story; that
was all. Then he found himself on the river the day after he returned, and he couldn't believe in simple stories anymore.
AMAZON KINDLE EDITION