Ashley Valmere, Embers (photograph)

Since Yuka had come to love the boy Tupiq,
words had dissolved, useless, many times
in her mouth.  Young and small, for instance.
Tupiq was younger, smaller.  But when she spoke this,
it was a lie.  He was fearsome unclothed,
his hands and shoulders infused with the wisdom
of his grandfathers. But even Tupiq the fearsome
could not stop the helpers – another wrong word –
Qallunaat: white people who came to steal women
with child. Yuka had seen them helping many times.
In the mothers’ ninth moon, the Qallunaat
descended and disappeared the women on planes
to southern hospitals.  Yuka’s sister’s child died
inside her the first time.
“Your midwives are untrained,” they said.
“Our doctors went to school. This is the better way.”
They left the women in stark motels with battered Bibles
phonebooks in the drawers.  They called it “killing time.”
Tupiq woke Yuka in the night, wrapped her
in his furs, and hid her in the Aanigutyak,
the hut where children should be born.
He is young, after all, Yuka thought, but she let him
hide her, let him stroke her belly under her clothes,
let him feed her from his hand one last time
before the planes came and then there would be
only lukewarm food on plastic plates.  Love, too,
was a useless word for this, the charged space
between their bodies – akkunaptingni. “I will return,”
she spoke into his shoulder as the baby rolled
to the drum of their mating.  She fell asleep and dreamed
the baby came in the night – here as it should:
her mother between her legs, Tupiq singing old music,
the days after in her own clothes.  But they were discovered
by the helpers early in the morning.  The Qallunaat
peeled the lovers apart as if skinning an animal,
although, Yuka knew, almost laughing, they would not
know how.  All of their animals
lived in cages and died
far away from their kind.


Katie Bickham