Excerpt from “Agnes”

by Pam Ruatto

Under a foot of soft snow, the thickly fermenting fish heads are redolent with sealskin wrap and with the cast of spoiled mosses and tundra grasses that insulate them. Fermentation of these fish heads—called stink-head—will take months, a thousand feet of permanently frozen soil underneath them keeping the process slow. It will be winter before Agnes can harvest them, and this she will do in private. She has told no one in the little village of Shismaref that she is still fermenting fish heads in the old way, an Inupiat custom that many still honor, especially women her age. Perhaps she would not be blamed or looked down upon, but she would certainly be pitied for what had gone before. There was no reason to bring it up.

It was in friendly competition over who could make the best stink-head that her sister Ida had died the previous year. That competition had been with Agnes, the older sister and supposedly the wiser, who had, she now felt, indulged her little sister rather than guiding her well.

There had come over the village that summer, as there had more and more it seemed to Agnes, a sort of rage to indiscriminately modernize. She was lamenting the use of plastic buckets and zip-close bags in making stink-head, or any type of stink-fish—lamenting this aloud as an affront to one of the few traditions left in food preparation, drumming on about it to her contentious sister who of course would take the other side. It was possible now, with these containers, her sister felt, to get the fermenting done much quicker—that was the argument for it—in weeks instead of months. And the flavor was, to some, the same. Agnes made the argument that the flavor was never the same, that the slow process over permafrost with only snow, sealskin, and tundra grasses to enclose the fish heads, drew out a flavor like that which she and Ida had been raised on, one that could not be duplicated by modern methods with plastic buckets and bags. This was impossible to describe to white people, who would not get near it as the smell, to them, was so foul—a mix of ammonia, fish rot, and skunk cabbage, it was said. Agnes knew that while Eskimo people had only in recent generations learned the habit of salt, white people salted everything, which perhaps turned their taste buds against stink-fish. Or it could just be disgust for what was foreign to them. They ate rotten and fermented cheeses and game, which they called aged, but never fish that had been put up in the Eskimo way.

To her, stink-fish had a wonderful taste—the ocean made solid, seasoned only by the sharp edge of fermentation and the heavy scent of the sealskin it had lain in. It was sauced from the inside out with everything that was Inupiat Eskimo, including the time it took to make it, and she would add nothing to it, not even seal oil. The people of Shishmaref could certainly live without putting up fish in that way, but it was one of the few old ways of preparing food left by the women who’d come before them. It was important, and it should be made just as it had always been, Agnes thought. Why couldn’t Ida see this?

Agnes and Ida had been renowned doll-makers for many years, each working in the most traditional of ways. Though their dolls were very different—the people who bought their work could tell one sister’s doll from another at a glance—they were both known for their use of the fur, guts, skin, and bone of seal, whale, walrus, wolf, and caribou, often with a bit of basketry thrown in. Ida made her dolls in standing poses, with solemn yet quite distinct faces and detailed clothing. Agnes’ dolls were always posed in some sort of activity—carrying baskets of berries, ice fishing, or stooped in the labor of skinning a seal. She would often give them humorous expressions, their mouths in an O to show surprise, or in a grimace to show frustration with the task at hand.

The tannery in Shishmaref gave the sisters a leg-up against many of their doll-making competitors from other villages, as it provided easy access to the hides and skins and intestines needed for their dolls’ bodies and faces; and the drying and bleaching of the seal gut, which they used to make thread, could also be done there.

On the importance of tradition in doll making the sisters could agree, but on stink-fish, Ida could not see the point. What would it be like if their father had rejected snowmobiles and the family had continued to use dog sleds, or if their mother had gone on hand-sewing every garment instead of using a sewing machine? They would have traveled nowhere as children and had only one dress each to wear every year. What was so wrong with a woman learning newer, more convenient ways to put away food?

“I can make stink-head as well as you can and in less than half the time,” Ida had said. And so the bet was on. Agnes would wrap her salmon heads and bury them in the old way that summer, while Ida would wait until two weeks before Agnes’s fish heads would be ready before laying hers down in plastic. In the first week of full winter, when both women would cook their fish, the taste test would come.

When the time came, the women gathered with a group of female friends and relatives to have what the young girls were calling a blind taste test—the tasters would not know which fish head had been prepared by which woman until the end. They started with a boiling process on Ida’s propane stove—each woman in attendance taking a turn to stir and to comment on the odors coming out of the pans. Even Agnes had to admit that she couldn’t tell the difference between the two fish heads by look or by smell. But it would be there at the end in the flavor, she said.

Not a full day after the competition, which concluded in a tie, Agnes got the news that two of the women who’d been at the tasting were at the clinic. Worse yet, her sister Ida was on a respirator and they were bringing in a helicopter to fly her to a hospital in Kotzebue.

She rushed to the clinic to see Ida, and had a moment’s crazy urge to make her sister laugh, to point out that she, Agnes, was the one still standing, to say with a straight face, “I told you I would win in the end.” The people in the village, everyone Agnes had ever been close to, loved to laugh in the face of death—there was no greater humor than slapstick, after all. But only in the face of it, not in what might well be the fact of it, and Agnes was too worried to share the joke. She would regret this later. Why hold back with her own sister—had she been afraid of what the nurses would say? Caution took the chance away from her, and Agnes spoke of nothing but concern to Ida, who died without laughing even as the helicopter, its cold blades whipping snow from the ground in a cyclone of white around it, made its landing outside the clinic doors.

The simple forensics of any death in the village were of interest to everybody—like old pilots who meet for coffee after an air disaster of any kind, every person who had ever eaten or prepared stink-fish had plenty of questions and plenty to say. Stink-fish has always held the risk of botulism, but with modern methods, using plastic buckets and zippered bags, the fish gets warmer quicker, making better conditions for the botulism toxin to grow. These were the words of the clinic’s doctor that would ever be passed verbatim, or at least as well as could be remembered, around the village now.

But why would only some people get sick when all of the women had tasted all of the fish and all of the fish had been cooked the same? This question was met with a sorrowful shrug. Botulism toxin, it turned out, was not distributed evenly throughout the food. It would be concentrated in the thicker portions, the doctor had said. Those who ate at the edges—ate first, perhaps—would take less of it in.

Cook it longer; eat only the edges; and finally, NEVER MAKE IT AGAIN. This was the conclusion that some of the women had drawn. But Agnes knew even then that when the season came around the next year, she would find herself making stink-fish in memory of her sister as much as of her mother and grandmother.

Agnes’s isolation in the village after her sister’s death had been self-imposed and of short duration. She was of a generation that did not take well to depression—those who had come of age during the Second World War, not like the young ones these days for whom suicide was the greatest threat of all. Her people would gather round her, no matter what she said to put them off. Unless she took to drink and got kicked off the dry island, she was stuck with them and they with her.

Her cousin Ishmael, some twenty years her junior and her nearest relative in the village, checked in on her almost daily now. Her own children had gone down to college in the Lower 48 years before, and they were now making their lives there—a son in Arizona, and a daughter and two grandchildren in New Mexico. Ishmael came to see her by snowmobile in winter, but when the ice thawed he would walk, something always in the bag slung over his shoulder to bring her— canned Spam, her favorite treat since childhood, a food that her father and the other men always took with them when they hunted because it doesn’t freeze, or berries, if Ishmael’s wife Liza had got some. They would have coffee in front of the stove, and he would ask her questions about what she remembered from the old days, and what had changed in the village since she had been a child. He had asked once if he might bring a tape recorder with him, which made her feel so old—so historical—that she’d looked away, which Ishmael had rightly taken as a “no.”

She found these interviews interesting at first—it was nice to have a younger person’s undivided attention—but she then began to feel morose afterwards, even to the point where she cried after Ishmael left one morning for having thought too closely of, and pictured too well, a pup from her father’s dog kennel that she’d been allowed to keep as her own.

What a thing to mourn: after the loss of a beloved husband, a sister, her parents, and her grandparents, she cries over a puppy whose death she can’t even remember—only that she had played with him in the constant daylight of summer, and by the following winter he was gone. She thought of her father telling her, not long before he died, that he knew he was old when he found himself crying over the “Leave It To Beaver” show on the TV. Her father, who had played hide-and-seek with polar bears on the seal hunting grounds they shared—always with a rifle on his back, but nonetheless, he had known them, had understood and respected them, and they, the greatest of all hunters, had respected him back. In the end, he’d seen himself as an old man made sad by a television show that had nothing to do with his life. Now she knew how he’d felt.

One morning, Agnes went out early to check her fish heads—to see that the snow was covering them, that they weren’t disturbed by a fox. Her house, a small rectangle of blue-painted plywood with a gas heater and a kerosene stove, waited warmly for her, a honey-bucket with a shed over it out back. Ishmael would take care of the honey-bucket for her after their visit, pulling the drawstring tight on the black plastic bag that lines the old pail and taking it to the edge of town where it would be tossed in the community lagoon, as it was called, or, as Ishmael put it, into the village’s non-treatment human waste plant.

She’d had a time of shame over her personal honey-bucket, her “leavings” she would have said aloud, to be polite, though she thought of it—just as the men in her family had always spoken of it—as shit. It was a terrible thing to face, the burden of needing a younger man to tend to her business in such a way. But her shame had been replaced by resentment that she had to think so much about shit—hers or anyone else’s— at all. It had not been such a problem in her day. The village had only been populated part of the year as they were then a people who lived where they hunted and fished, and traveled to the same areas to do these things year after year. And so everyone could go off to relieve themselves away from the salmon-fishing and berry-picking camps, and when they came back to those camps the next summer, the waste would be absorbed into the ground.

Now the people stayed in the winter village year-round for its many conveniences. Permafrost did not allow waste of any kind to compost readily, and the constant accumulation had combined with the warming of the winters to make the situation worse. The bags of shit from everyone’s honey-buckets lay mounded in a soggy pile in the community lagoon, freezing over later and later every year and thawing out sooner in the spring, seeping into the very groundwater so that everyone had to be careful to keep the children and the dogs away. But dogs and children would run everywhere, and sometimes the greatest care would fail. The young men who worked for Shishmaref Water and Sewer would bury the old lagoons and make new ones every so often, digging further and further out from the village. Nonetheless, you could, at times, smell the lagoon when it was in a thaw cycle—and the thaw cycles seemed to last longer than before.

Agnes thought, coming back to her place, of what she and Ishmael might do with the rest of her morning that would not involve remembering. But Ishmael was ahead of her on all counts, and she found him standing at her door with a letter in his hand.

“Read it to me,” Agnes said, afraid to approach what might be bad news on her own.

“It is from your niece,” Ishmael said. “She wants to live with you.”

Agnes laughed and then grew quiet—the only thing to do in that moment, before she’d had time to think. Ishmael laughed with her—for her comfort, she knew—then he left her to consider on her own what it would mean to have a niece like this one living in her house.

Agnes’ niece was really her grandniece, the granddaughter of her sister Ida. Fedora, that was her name, a name that any girl would change as soon as she was old enough, Agnes would have thought. Fedora had hated her name as a very small child, but she had come around to fighting for it once she started being teased in the village school. Which made no sense to Agnes: what kind of name was this to defend, and why like it only because others did not? It was not a traditional Inupiat name, nor even a popular-with-white-people name, but merely something that Ida’s daughter Florence had called out to her husband while she was in labor—and what had Florence been thinking of, anyway? Was it not the name of the witch’s mother in the television show? It was certainly a kind of hat. Florence’s husband had told the nurses to write it down on the birth certificate, and that had set it in stone—a fine joke. But for Fedora—which she was called in every circumstance as no one had ever come up with a nickname that would stick—it was the fighting that mattered, having something she could beat the boys up about until they finally, when she was in the sixth or seventh grade, managed to equal her in strength, if not ferocity. By that time she had won them over anyway, becoming so skilled at wrestling—which Agnes considered a boy’s sport—that it brought her their respect. You would see her playing only with boys, in those days, which had worried Ida and Agnes. Yes, boys liked a girl who saw things on their terms, but what about when it came time to take a wife? Fedora hadn’t seemed worried about that.

Fedora worked in the print shop at one of the Native corporations in Anchorage now, living alone in her trailer, cribbage games with her co-workers and Bingo at the mall her main outlets, so some in the village had heard. She asked little of anyone. For an Eskimo woman born and raised in such a close village, she was remarkably self-contained, but by all accounts not happily so. Contentiousness was becoming more a part of her, it was said in the village, much as the broken harpoon-shaft burrows deeper into the flank of a seal.

Agnes took her time thinking. There was never a chance that she would not take her sister’s granddaughter in if it truly was what Fedora wanted, but it was good to wait to say this, to give her niece and herself time. It made little sense that Fedora would want to come—she had a good job where her ways would be readily understood. There were few jobs in Shishmaref and almost nothing for the younger people to do. Even if Fedora took to a traditional woman’s artist trade, as Agnes did, it would take years for her to become proficient enough to sell anything, which she could better do in Anchorage anyway. Well, Agnes would have to speak to her niece and go from there. She would make the call to Fedora from the general store.

Herbie Nayokpuk, the storekeeper and owner, greeted Agnes as she came in, handing her the phone when she explained her business. He would not allow her to pay, and he waved her off when she opened her pocketbook, saying simply that this would be on his dime.

Herbie was a hero to the Inupiat people, the most famous person in Shishmaref—the only one ever to be well known outside the village. Some considered him the father of the Iditarod dog sled race, which he had been one of the few Eskimos to compete in—and it was Eskimos, Yupik and Inupiat alike, who had most loved that, who had stood alongside the trail cheering “Eskimo town!” as he sped by, to say that he belonged to all of them, not just to the people of Shishmaref. A framed photo of him in top hat and tuxedo, looking at his reflection in a gilded mirror, hung on the wall behind the register. This was something Agnes never failed to stand and admire for at least a few moments, as it had been taken at the White House after Herbie had attended Ronald Reagan’s inaugural ball. A handsome man in that time and now, with his lightly graying hair, he was taller by a head than either Agnes’s father or her husband had been, and almost two feet taller than the diminutive Agnes. In fact, Agnes had a bit of a crush on Herbie, though she also had a great fondness for his wife, who was usually at his side.

He watched her now, as she dialed the phone, without seeming to stare. It was impossible for people so close to each other not to want to know everything. Stories of tragedy intermingled with gossip constantly, and with the wind whistling for months around the confined village, you had to allow others their curiosity. She smiled at him to say there is no tragedy here, and then Fedora came on the line.

“Ama,” she said, using the old name for her great-aunt that she had used in childhood. “I have been thinking about the letter I wrote. I would like for you to come live with me in Anchorage instead.”

Pam Ruatto has been an illustrator for some twenty-five years, working mostly with the tourism and food industries. She began writing prose after moving to Asheville from Alaska. Her first piece was published in 2004. Outside the occasional break for fiction and essay, she’s been immersed in a memoir set mostly in southern California, Asheville, and Alaska, but also in Las Vegas, Florida, Chicago, a commune in western Washington, and Panama.

About Agnes—This unfinished story started with the prompt, “We Are What We Eat.” I’ve never been to Shishmaref, or to any of the remote villages in Alaska, but I lived in Anchorage for twelve years before moving to Asheville, and I met a number of Alaska Native people there. My husband still works on the North Slope of Alaska, at a remote drill site some 500 miles northeast of Shishmaref, from which he keeps abreast of the news: two women dying of botulism poisoning in one of the villages, and the passing of the older generation, including Herbie Nayokpuk, Delbert Emingowuk, Ellen Savage, and Walter Amos, and most recently the great Yupik dancer, MaryAnn Sundown. The loss of these people, and many others—all artists—is the greater impetus for the story begun here.

On the term, “Eskimo”—I know that it is considered a pejorative in Canada, where the term Inuit is used. However, Inuit is not widely accepted in Alaska, as it does not include the Yupik, Cupik, or Inupiat. The term “Eskimo” is still used proudly by many Alaskans to distinguish themselves from other Alaska Native peoples, such as Athabaskans, Tlingit, and Haida.