A Guest Post by Donna Erickson: Keep Your Stitches Tight

A tip for anyone venturing into Iditarod country during the race: Don’t try going south when the mushers are headed north. At least not if you’re in a hurry. Planes are diverted to shuffle checkpoint workers and spectators, and there’s a good chance your flight will be delayed. For a long time.

But if you have to get stuck, I recommend Unalakleet. Bering Air agent Donna Erickson has a great reputation for service. She’s also an up and coming Alaskan author. As we chatted during the many hours I waited in the tiny terminal, she told me how she’d enjoyed writing workshops conducted by Velma Wallis and Sherry Simpson in Unalakleet. She also gave me permission to publish this narrative she wrote in one of the workshops.

Donna’s great-aunt Amelia Davis told her this painful but true story. Donna added her own details. Because she didn’t know her great-aunt’s Inupiaq name, Donna used her own, Sauraq. The setting is a cluster of five sod houses somewhere north of Shishmaref on the coast between Shishmaref and Kivalina. It is winter and the year is 1918.

Sauraq felt a pain in her heart as her mother spoke. The air in the sod house felt heavy and stiff. Why did Mother have to be telling her these things? Sauraq didn’t want to hear what Mother was saying. She sat uncomfortably at the foot of the sleeping platform. Father lay next to Mother as the seal oil lamp flickered, casting an eerie glow on his cold form.

“When I fall asleep, remember to put your baby brother at my breast. Cover him with many furs. Don’t let his crying bother you. Baby brother must join your father and me, for there will be no one to feed him.

Pain swelled in Sauraq’s chest, so big heavy it was hard to swallow. Could this really be happening? What had caused the great sickness to come? Even the old shaman whom everyone feared had fallen asleep. Someone surely had broken the shaman’s rules. Sauraq wondered if it was her, or perhaps her older brother Walluk, for neither one of them had felt weak, nor had the sickness come upon them.

Mother reminded Walluk of the ways she had taught him to set snares. “Don’t ever forget,” she said. “Always look out for Sauraq. Remember the ptarmigan will always keep you alive, for the ptarmigan leave droppings for people to eat.” Mother lovingly looked at Sauraq. “Remember to keep your stitches tight.”

Mother reminded Sauraq of all the things she had taught her. “Do you remember when we picked the masu root?” The masu root was like a potato. Sauraq thought of the sweet taste and how it felt in her mouth. Most of all, Mother whispered, the shaman’s rules no longer mattered. “If you find dried fish or meat in someone else’s empty hut, be sure and take it. No harm will come to you, for you must survive and live to see your own children.”

When Mother finally fell asleep, Walluk placed baby brother at Mother’s side and lifted her squirrel skin parka. Sauraq held onto his small fat fist as she felt the warmth of her mother’s body slowly grow cold. The heavy furs muffled her baby brother’s cries until they faded to silence in the darkness.

Walluk sat up stiffly as Sauraq leaned into him. Oh how Sauraq wanted Mother and Father not to leave them. She felt desperation as she clung to brother’s arm and studied the little tight stitches in the sleeve of his fawn skin parka. Her mother’s words danced with the flicker of flames from the lamp. “Remember to keep your stitches tight.”

1 thought on “A Guest Post by Donna Erickson: Keep Your Stitches Tight”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Deb, Thank you for bringing original Alaska writing directly from a new writer and into this blog! You used that airport time really well

    Donna Erickson, thank you for sharing this. If it’s in progress, I hope you continue with it. If it’s finished, I hope you get the rest into a form where readers can find it. We want to hear these stories from people living all across Alaska — and on top of it, this particular period (the 1918 epidemic) is a dramatic and important one.

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