What follows is an extract from Adam Weymouth’s Kings of the Yukon, winner of the Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award in association with the University of Warwick.
We push out from Ghost Creek Slough. Mary Demientieff’s fish camp is half a day’s paddle downriver, set back in a wide bay beneath Tabernacle Mountain. Hills ring the bay, but from this point on, high land will be scarce. Since Koyukuk, 250 miles before, the river gone run south. Despite the ocean at times being no more than forty miles away, the Yukon has been kept from it by the ridge of the Nulato Hills that run parallel to its western bank. But now, at this camp, the hills come to an end, and the river can bend around to the west and strike out on its final 250 miles across the delta. It is this bend that forms the good eddies for the set nets. We pull in beside two other boats, both skiffs, at the foot of a fallen bank. There are several cabins, some ply, some log, a smokehouse built from scraps of corrugate, all thrown up haphazardly across the patch of land. Washing blows on a line. Standing above us, watching us, is a little girl, deadly serious, in the way that some little girls are. She has seen us coming, and meets us with instructions on where to moor. I climb the bank and tie the bowline to a flagpole, where a flag embroidered with the words Live, Laugh and Love snaps about like a flame in the wind. With all the gravity of diplomatic ritual, the girl hands each of us a twoinch piece of celery with peanut butter daubed into the hollow. These are small canoes, she explains, for eating. We are represented by the peanut butter. My thoughts turn again to the bears.
Mary Demientieff is walking across her yard towards us. She is dressed in slippers and a red smock, a blue flannel turban to cover her hair. She walks with her hands behind her back, her whole body angled forward, and she moves across the yard as though toppling forward, a continual upsetting and restoration of balance with each step. Her knees are not what they used to be. Her eyes have the same glint as her greatgranddaughter’s, her cheeks round and bright, her face softened but not wrinkled. On one wrist she wears a band with the words Padre Pio – Pray Hope and Don’t Worry. She beams at us and opens her arms.
‘Adventurers!’ she says.
Mary spends her summers out here at camp, her winters in Holy Cross, as she has done for over sixty years. A creek falls down from the mountain top and meets the river, splitting the shore in half; on one side is Mary’s camp, and on the other is Jeffrey’s, one of her sons. Mary has six sons: Jeffrey, Joseph, Jareth, John, Julian, and Bergen. She has six daughters, too: Carol, Connie, Cathy, Correine, Candyce, and Lisa. By now she has lost count of her greatgrandchildren, but they number some where around a hundred, and then there are her greatgreat grandchildren. Her family, her life’s work. Sometimes people will look at her askance when she tells them the number of children that she had.
‘I tell them “I was doing my duty, as a wife,”’ she says. ‘They think maybe I was oversexed or something.’
Bergen is out here for a few days, up from Anchorage, to help his mother out. The little girl is Mary Junior, his granddaughter. Bergen has the distracted air of someone busy with his own internal commentary. He draws out the syllables of my name as far as they will go, and fires thin brown streaks of spit, like punctuation, as he talks, the byproduct of the tobacco jammed inside his upper lip. We sit around a table inside one of the cabins. Mary makes tea and puts fish roe and fried bannock down in front of us. She has family the length of the river, the breadth of the state, and she wants to know where we’ve been, who we’ve seen, how the fishing goes, who’s at camp. She is delighted that we stayed with friends of hers, the Honeas, up near Ruby. Once again, I am astonished by the ready hospitality, the ease with which people open their doors and offer beds and food. We are offered so much food that Ulli has long since given up not eating meat, and she has fallen to the moose and beaver and bacon, with pancakes and birch syrup, with a vegetarian’s zeal. Besides, this is the food of her childhood.
The walls are lined with flattened cardboard boxes to keep in the heat of the wood stove. Beside it there are shelves of dried goods, and the brands that have become familiar by now: Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, Smucker’s strawberry jam, Jif peanut butter, Crisco, Sailor Boy Pilot Bread Crackers. Outside, Mary Junior swings back and forth, crosswise across the hammock, singing a song of her own devising. Everywhere there are icons of the Virgin Mary: an ornament on the kitchen table, framed paintings on the walls, a plastic statue on the front stoop, her hands spread wide, as though demonstrating the size of a fairly disappointing salmon. There is a shrine up on the hillside, topped with the steeple of the original church of Holy Cross. On the wall above the stove is a black and white portrait of the founder of the Sisters of Saint Anne, her face framed by her apostolnik, a crucifix around her neck. Mère Marie‐Anne Fondatrice des sœurs de Sainte Anne, says the inscription below. Née le 18 avril 1809 décédée le 2 janvier 1890. I ask Mary who she is, and she tells me that if I want to know, then I must know some other things first.
Mary Demientieff was born Mary Dahlquist, in Nulato, in 1932. Her father, Bill Dahlquist, was from Stockholm, but what had brought him to Alaska Mary didn’t know. She never knew too much. He died when she was five. She thinks, maybe, he had something to do with sailing. She remembers pictures in the house, old photographs of great wooden boats beneath a canopy of sails, prows dipping to the waves, and she remembers, too, him coming home from his work in the jailhouse in Nulato, and sitting in the kitchen in impenetrable silence. He was her mother’s third husband, third of four. The first died in an avalanche. The second mauled by a bear. No one divorced in those days; they didn’t last long enough. She remembers her mother. She remembers her crying, always crying. And she remembers her drinking. She remembers the stories that she told her.
When she was seven she was taken to the Holy Cross Mission Orphanage, the same orphanage that Roger Huntington of the Bible Camp would be taken to, and abused at, ten years later. Mary went on the recommendation of one of the priests in Nulato. Her father was dead, and her mother was incapable of looking after her. She was out of hand, the Jesuit priest said, and her mother was not in the habit of questioning the opinions of the church. Her mother stood on the riverbank, her eyes raw and red, as she watched her daughter shipped off to where she herself was raised. Mary went downriver on the paddle steamer S.S. Nenana. For most kids the expensive trip on the steamer was one way, and they would not return home until they were eighteen. The boat sits in a park in Fairbanks now, a museum to itself, like much of the rest of Mary’s life. One of her grandsons plays piano in its saloon for the tourists.
She remembers all that like it was yesterday. Turning up in Holy Cross in the middle of the night, September, and the air sharp with the fall. Smoke rising from the houses, the leaves on the ground. A farmer in a tractor collected them in a wagon, and they drove down a track lined with spruce and in the distance she could see the lights of the mission, lit up like a pinball machine. She thought she’d died and gone to heaven. There were three hundred children in there. Her and all the other orphans. Mary felt lucky that she still had a mother. She even came to visit her, once.
They were raised by the bell. The bell told them when to get up, when to lay down. When to eat, when to wash, when to work, when to stop talking, when to start talking. Ten years, she was there in the mission. Ten years to make her into the woman she is today. They taught them the value of discipline.
‘I’d be on Skid Row now,’ says Mary, ‘if it wasn’t for those nuns.’
But it was hard that the nuns never held them. Her mother might have been an alcoholic, but at least she hugged her. But then, the sisters had no children of their own, so how could they know? They used to skate with them in wintertime, in their flowing habits, gliding across the frozen river like some kind of exotic waterfowl. Some of them weren’t much older than the kids. There are photographs from the time of groups of native children, some in suits, some in parkas, and in the back row, out of all context, looms a nun in her habit and wimple, like a phantom figure that was not seen when the photograph was taken, and appears only in the development.
They learnt the four Rs: reading, writing, arithmetic, religion. English was insisted on, any other language was that of the Devil. The nuns took them to Paimiut, a village a few miles downriver from this camp, and it was there that they learnt to cut fish and the boys learnt to set nets. Every month they would be given different chores. Scrub the pots. Do the laundry. Weed the gardens. Sweep the stairs, and for the love, there were so many stairs. Funds were meagre, and so the pupils maintained their own buildings and grew all of their own food. Mary liked working in the infirmary, with Sister Mary Edward, and she liked being the sacristan, helping with the altar linens. Most of all she liked looking after the little ones, the new orphans, too young to learn still, but brought to the mission with no place else to go. She would dress them, and she would hold them. Just hold them, and breathe in the smell of their scalps, and for a moment she could be somewhere else, somewhere softer, where it was love and not obedience that could make you into someone better. Annie was alive still, up in Anvik. Annie’s first memory was being held by Mary. And that’s something, Mary thinks. That’s something.
One night, when she was fifteen, she ran away. There were three of them, Mary, Ursula and Irene. They snuck from their dormitory in the middle of the night and followed the hill down towards the lights. The mission might have given the village of Holy Cross its name, but that was the extent of the connection. The children were forbidden to mix with those who lived there. Freedom was a thrilling idea. Yet they stood on the banks of the Yukon, dreaming of what it would be like to let it bear them off, and there was no place else to go. They knocked on a door, and Mrs Simms chivvied them inside and gave them akutaq, Indian ice cream, made of seal fat and white fish and berries, and if she wondered what three stray children were doing out in the middle of the night then she didn’t say. Mary had never seen anything like akutaq; she thought she was going to be sick. But they’d been brought up by the nuns to eat everything on their plate, and to be honest they needed little encouragement, because they were always, always hungry. The big girls – that’s what they were called when they got to a certain age, big girls – would help with the cutting of the kings, and the big boys caught the fish, but they scarcely ever got to eat it. Mary didn’t know what happened to it. Maybe it went to the mission’s benefactors. The orphans got dog fish, and once in a blue moon, on a Sunday, a little piece of king, a couple of salted bellies on a saucer, laid side by side like two rashers of bacon from a piglet. Such tokens, such memories of a time before the mission, only served to make the hunger worse. It was in the convent that Mary learnt to steal. She sewed a pocket into her petticoat, and in there she would hide the bits of dried fish that she was able to filch when she was working in the kitchens. Once she found a vat of peanut butter, donated by the army after the war, and she snuck into the pantry between chores and ate it by the handful. She got so sick she couldn’t touch it again until she was in her seventies.
From Mrs Simms the three of them went next door, where Old John Simms and his wife lived with their children, children who were the same age as them but who in every other way were as different as could be. They stared at each other across the room. The girls realized that they knew no one, and that freedom, after it lost its shine, came along with its own set of problems. They slept beneath a bridge and awoke chilled in the dawn, and they decided to go back. The kids were standing in file, ready for school, and they slipped into the ranks, thinking how clever they had been, at least, to get away with it. It was a secret to keep between them till the grave.
‘Ursula Ellanna. Mary Dahlquist. Irene Solomon. Mother Superior will see you now.’
The summons came in the afternoon, in the middle of arithmetic. The Mother Superior was behind her desk, her face long and thin within her habit, like one exposed segment of an orange.
‘Where were you last night?’ she said. There was silence in the room. ‘Down there,’ one of them mumbled. ‘Down where?’
It was Sister Joanne who shaved their heads. Mary watched her reflection as she ran the clippers across her scalp. It made her think of dogsleds cutting through the snow. And it brought back to her the first memory she had, wrapped in blankets in the back of the sled, their three dogs pulling and her mamma running alongside. It’s rare for anyone to remember back that far, but she did. Those early April mornings with the night’s crust on the snow, and all the families heading out to spring camp. She remembered waking in the tent in the morning by herself, and the sun coming in, and outside she could hear her mamma’s voice talking with the rest of them, all in Indian, and her mamma coming in when she heard she was awake. Her mamma called her by her native name, but she couldn’t remember that now. Her mamma was skinning muskrat, the skins stretched out on boards and the tails in a pot. Her mamma said that she couldn’t eat the tails, because when she grew up and tried to thread a needle she would shake, because the muskrat tail shakes. But she took the fat and the gristle from the skin, slivers of it sliced with her knife, and popped them in Mary’s mouth. She could still smell the spruce boughs that lined the floor of their tent, smell the warm canvas, still smell the muskrat, and even now, nearing the end of her life, when she had to think of some thing good, in the hospital when they gave her a shot, say, that’s the time that she would think of, and it made everything not hurt.
Their hair fell about their feet in drifts. Their heads were bald and white, ugly and misshapen. She thought she would die of shame. The other children kept their distance as though she were contagious. Ursula and Irene had curls and it grew out soon enough, but Mary’s hair was long and straight and she bore the shame for months. She wore a handkerchief over her head for so long that it became hard to imagine her without one. But she deserved it, of course, she knew that. She was out of hand.
The pot of tea is empty. Bergen wants to go and check the net, before it gets too late, and he asks if I want to go with him. Ulli stays at camp, and the rest of us head out in the boat. On the far edge of the bay, Tabernacle Mountain drops down directly to the water. The current at the base of the cliffs runs swift as the water urges over the deep rock bottom bed.
‘This is the way to travel,’ Bergen cries through a stream of tobacco juice. Mary Junior is wearing a lifejacket decorated with characters from Frozen, and she stands behind Bergen, who has the wheel, while Mary rests her hands in her lap in a chair at the back by the helm and gazes out across the water. When she smiles her eyes glisten, and sometimes she seems very close to tears, as though the line between joy and sadness has eroded over the course of her life, and has now become very fine indeed.
The net is marked by an orange buoy. Bergen hands the wheel to Mary and she takes it, sets her lips, and holds the skiff against the current. Her confidence isn’t what it used to be, but she can still do it if she has to. She drove the boat down to camp this spring. She doesn’t like to bother anyone. Bergen pulls a pair of gloves from the pocket of his Helly Hansen dungarees and stands on the bow, hauling the net in hand over hand. I help him. It is heavy work. The net is weighted with rocks, tied around the bottom of the mesh, and it is weighted, too, by the humpies that are so numerous that it seems more fish than net.
‘They’re so provoking,’ says Mary, raising her hands to the sky. ‘Yesterday we pulled out 159. 159! For the love.’
She finds the photograph on her iPhone, of a tote brimming with them and spilling out onto the deck. Most of these pinks have been snagged by the gills, some by the teeth, and they are bound in Gordian knots that Bergen can negotiate in seconds and that I only make worse with every tug and yank. The ones still alive stare up at me, their mouths agape, speechless at this final injustice. I bind them tighter. I feel like a deranged puppeteer. The nylon cuts into their gills. Their flanks are striped where they have fought against the net, and their bodies are sheathed with a viscous slime that makes it harder for predators to get hold of them. I try to get hold of them. They are soft and spent, and the mucous coats my hands, so that when I part my fingers they appear amphibious. I get one eventually, firmly round the belly. It feels like a cheap pillow. And I hold it just so, massage it in just the right places, that it ejaculates all down my leg.
This is hysterical. Bergen struggles to breathe. I’m not sure how often this happens but it feels like a particularly amateur mistake. It is something I wish that other people hadn’t seen.
‘Need to get yourself a pair of Hellys,’ Bergen gasps.
I yank it free and toss it in the tote, where it lands with a wet clap and shivers and is still. The mound of fish is building. Some, for moments, recognize the gravity of their situation, and beat wildly, ricocheting around the cooler, leaving bloody imprints where they impact. The force makes me nervous, as though the impetus of its wildness is only apparent when held within constraints, like a bird trapped in a room. But as quickly as the salmon start they stop, and lie there panting, an eye fixed skyward, their flanks rising and falling. Mary Junior rests her hands on the side and peers into the tote, entranced by these slabs of muscle that are half the size of her.
When the net is at last empty Bergen feeds it back into the water. There are several dozen humpies in the tote, and just three of the silvers that Mary wants. Away from the net we hover in midstream, and sling the humpies, two at a time, back into the river. Mary Junior hoists them in both arms, the front of her anorak slick with gore. The silvers are left at the bottom of the tote. We motor back to camp.
Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth is published by Particular Books, and is available now.