Stork Expected at Point Barrow
BY ELIZABETH C. FORREST
WITH August the Bear returned on her annual cruise into the North, doctor and district superintendent on board, a scientist or two, and a high church prelate. And in the parcel post was an exciting package — tiny garments of creamy silk and wool. But with it came upsetting information. My order had properly impressed the firm with the need for promptness; the letter had reached them at ten o’clock in the morning, and the package had gone north by two of that same afternoon. Their publicity man, however, had seen an excellent opportunity for advertising. He had given my signed letter to the Toledo Blade. In the same mail with the package came clippings from various sections of the United States, — sent by unknown well-wishers,— captioned in black, ‘Stork Expected at Point Barrow!’
Suppose this news item should come to the attention of some friend or relative! Our mothers were not living, but we were particularly anxious that our fathers and other relatives should be spared months of worry and anxiety; for, if the baby arrived in March, it would be five months before word of his arrival could reach our homes. This unwanted publicity filled us with consternation and wrath. I sat down and relieved my mind in a caustic letter to the firm at fault, a letter which brought by return mail, six months later, a startled apology. Probably never before had they found newspaper publicity so unwelcome to a patron.
On board the cutter that brought our package was our superintendent on his annual visit. Already I was feeling wretched — a condition aggravated by the bustle, confusion, crowds, and sleepless hours of the boat’s coming. We shared our secret with Superintendent Shields, and his reception of it was reassuring. He was convinced that everything would go off splendidly, and he offered to try to arrange with the Mission doctor for a March visit to Wainwright which should include an inspection of our natives.
Copyright 1936, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.
Dr. Townsend was not on the Bear this trip; but I consulted with the new doctor, and secured from him suggestion and advice. Later I saw him eyeing me askance; sheer madness to run such a risk deliberately, his expression said. I knew a moment’s panic.
That feeling wasn’t lessened when, after the Bears departure, we began studying the medical books it had brought, intent upon being prepared for any emergency. Actually we knew practically nothing about the birth of babies; but we did n’t realize that until we began our investigations. In our own families the births had been normal affairs. One particularly gruesome book on obstetrics, however, was copiously illustrated, and convinced us that babies could be born in all sorts of monstrous forms and showed a predisposition to arrive in every way except the correct one. What had seemed a natural event, properly directed by Nature, took on depressing uncertainty. Moreover, in addition to the fund of information our medical library displayed, there were numerous episodes now recalled which the old doctor, in an attempt to dissuade us from our purpose, had enumerated — tragedies that had resulted from lack of proper surgical care.
For the most part, however, this thing of having a baby was an absorbing adventure. Our previously overcrowded days were now filled even fuller. Preparations of all sorts were under way. I made a tiny down pillow, and an eider quilt of lavender sateen, the only material that was available. The same material served as a maternity gown.
If I had been wise I should have worn a native koshbrook. Hanging in ample folds straight from the neck, kindly concealing, it is the perfect maternity garment. Often a woman had given birth to her child before I so much as suspected that one was on the way. But we are creatures of fixed grooves.
I drew on memories of my childhood for wrapper and tea gown such as my mother had worn on similar occasions. Without pattern or guidance, a horrible concoction resulted: kimonosleeved yoke with straight lengths gathered round, bands of wide black velvet my only trimming. Its companion garment, cut on the same voluminous lines, was of scarlet flannel from the Barrow trading post, trimmed, like the lavender sateen, with black velvet. These two garments took painful form under my direction at the hands of Eskimo seamstresses.
Sewing had never been my strong suit. At home my older sister had borne the brunt of it while I turned to more congenial tasks. I regretted my ignorance now. One garment took weeks in the making, growing steadily more odious to me. The rules required that sewing be taught, but material with which to work was limited. One bolt of gingham, one of calico, a khaki drill for snow shirts, and hideous purple outing flannel, with thread, needles, and small sundries, completed the list of our sewing supplies. Here was an opportunity ready to my hand for teaching practical sewing to my pupils.
In the schoolroom rows of little Eskimo girls sat solemnly hemming diapers, while in the aisles older girls cut and constructed tiny flannel gowns and wrappers, and dresses of sheer lawn. Those hours of sewing on the garments for my unborn babe must have been a bit hard on a race to whom any preparation before the baby’s coming spells disaster. But their stolid little faces gave no hint as they made row after row of stitches with awkward unfamiliar movements, pushing the needle from them. One after another, incredibly dirty little garments were completed, boiled long and lustily, and folded away.
Of an evening when no more pressing business interfered, Earle worked with Grouse in the schoolroom, building a sled; for we had decided that we could not depend upon a clumsy brakeless Eskimo sled for that important lastminute dash to Barrow. Earle and his director-assistant laboriously ripped a hardwood plank into strips of suitable thickness, planed and shaved and bent them, until a graceful sled, light and strong, took shape under their hands. And while they worked I sat at a school desk crocheting and embroidering, fashioning, in deference to custom, intricate scallops and sprays of flowers about the edges of flannel petticoats. Our satisfaction in our work was equal — Earle’s in his sled, in the proud curve of rounding bow and uptilted runners, in steel-pronged brake and intricate design of sinew lashings for adornment; mine in web of silken lace and perfect eyelet. Both worked for the same purpose — our arctic baby.
Early in the winter, with all of these unusual preparations under way, rumors spread through the village and up and down the coast. Old women would walk up to me, thrust an inquisitive finger into my abdomen, and ask bluntly, ‘Baby inside?’
At first hot waves of confusion scorched me. In our home babies had not been openly discussed before their arrival. They were something sacred and secret. Now here was my secret being openly discussed about the sealoil lamps along six hundred miles of coast. Privacy was neither permitted nor possible in this vast, sparsely settled land of unlocked doors. Letters in greasy blurred sprawl came from a hundred miles away. ’I hear that your wife has baby inside. I hope that it will come forth safely.’ Our nearest neighbor on the south, the Episcopal missionary at Point Hope, three hundred miles away, sent his felicitations. Messages of encouragement and good cheer came by every native traveler from our good friends at Point Barrow.
Developments were closely followed. Bleary-eyed old Shuguk brought her crumpled face — like crushed brown tissue paper — close to mine to ask in husky gutturals whether I had yet felt life, her graphic gestures making clear the meaning of her words.
And then one day in January, Robert, interpreter for that Sunday, stood after service confused and wordless while from all over the room insistent questions were thrust at him. At last, flushed, head hanging, he brought out, ‘The people like to know when the baby will come forth!’
Informed that March was the expected date, the gathering settled back with ejaculations of relief and pleasure, brown faces beaming, two hundred pairs of interested black eyes fixed upon me where I sat, uncomfortably, at the little organ.
As I look back now I wish that I had shared my baby’s coming with those friendly Eskimo mothers. But New England ancestry shrank and cringed from probing eyes and wagging tongues.
The winter passed slowly. I had little information at hand, but I made desperate efforts to do everything possible to keep well. Certain things I knew were expected of a pregnant mother: daily baths; walks in the open air; much fruit. Prunes and dried apples were my daily diet ad nauseam. Conscientiously each night, no matter how weary from a hard day in the schoolroom, I stood in the galvanized tub close to the stove, ice unthawing in the corners of the kitchen, my breath a white cloud before my face, and took a sponge bath, expecting at any moment that the water coursing over my body would turn to icicles.
‘Exercise daily in the open air’ was prescribed. I was deathly afraid of slipping on the ice, falling, and causing disaster. Yet, clinging like grim death to Earle’s arm, every day after school I ventured forth on the glazed surface of hard-packed snow.
We had decided that we could not count on native dogs to get us to Barrow quickly enough when the time arrived. We must have dogs of our own. Ever since Ivuk’s brief, tragic life we had been longing for another dog. Now we had legitimate excuse for acquiring a dog team.
Good dogs were difficult to buy; and one must be wary of those offered for sale. Adam Neakok, the sanctimonious, sold us Portugee, a big-headed black dog with white spots above the eyes, the laziest dog I have ever seen. In spite of voice or whip, his tug line always dragged the snow as he jogged leisurely along, just a shade behind the others, never pulling his share of the load.
From Nome Okilleak we bought Ahboo, a good worker but vicious, Nome warned us. He was a lean rangy brute with brown bristly hair, a lone wolf with a doleful, never-ending howl. The thudding of drums in the village, the young people singing hymns in the schoolroom of an evening, would start him off into tremulous lonely wails that raised the hair. He was an outlaw. The sturdy packing box Earle gave him for a house he tore to tiny splinters with powerful fangs. When Earle built a snow house to take its place he scorned its shelter. He lay on top of it in the bitter wind, sometimes consenting to curl up in its lee with a contempt that made us blush for our censure of the natives because they provided no shelter for their dogs.
Sisoak was a lean black dog, characterless, quiet, and efficient. But Ekluk was our favorite. We bought him from Robert for six dollars — a great woolly bouncing pup, not yet full-grown, though he was heavier than any in our team. The name Ekluk — black bear — just suited him.
We decided to have him for a leader, not realizing in our ignorance that leaders are born, not made. Earle made him a harness like a horse’s — collar of reindeer skin stuffed with hair, traces of sealskin. Sometimes as I lay on the front-room couch of an evening, luxuriating in my misery, mercifully alone for a few minutes, prodigious bumpings and sharp squalls came to me from the schoolroom where Earle was training his leader, driving him up one aisle, then geeing or hawing down another. I could hear faintly Earle’s short insistent commands, then startled yips from Ekluk. Apparently he was not learning very fast. The natives shook their heads, insisting that he was too slow and clumsy for a leader. All of their leaders, I noticed, were small and cringing, with terrified eyes.
The leader we finally got was of that sort. For weeks we tried to break one of our own, with many a spill and loss of temper incurred in the struggle. Out on the tundra we would try first one dog, then another, in the lead. Ekluk bounced back among the others, woofing and playing. Ahboo was pugnacious. None of them would lead out in the proper manner. Earle tried running ahead, calling them after him, while I rode the runners of the sled. Once they broke loose. Another time the sled upset and I, with a sickening jar, sat down hard. At last we were forced to the conclusion that a leader is not made in a week or even a month. When one’s only control over a dog team is by voice, a leader who knows his business is essential.
Earle rented two dogs from Charley and Grace, I-chew-siakh, for leader, and Rover, a wheel dog. We housed and fed the dogs, and put some meat on their lean ribs. Then Earle went out one day to find them gone. The dogs belonged to Charley; Kotook, his father-in-law, needing two good dogs for a trip to Icy Cape, had taken them. To him it was as simple as that. When Kotook returned, Earle interviewed him and explained at length that as long as we were paying rent for them the dogs were virtually ours, and we were feeding them for a very special use. Kotook nodded cheerful acquiescence — and a few days later the dogs were gone again.
This time Earle’s tone was not so mild. But losing one’s temper did no good at all. To Kotook the facts were plain: the two dogs belonged to Charley, the husband of his daughter; that entitled him to use them when he pleased.
We would gladly have returned the dogs, been quit of the whole business. But leaders were not easy to find; most men had only one and needed him themselves. And a leader we must have. A dog team without one is n’t a team at all —just a snarl of dogs fastened together, with as many different ideas as there are dogs. We endured I-chew-siakh, always in terror that when the day arrived when we should need him most we should find him gone.
I-chew-siakh did n’t fulfill our ideas of a leader. He had a sharp fox nose and a small cringing body covered with faded yellow hair, while we had visions of a handsome wolf-gray Malemute, pacing proudly, plumelike tail aloft. I-chew-siakh was a ‘problem dog,’ full of vague terrors. A dog psychoanalyst might had delved into his past and dispelled his phobias. We had to endure them.
At first he shunned his warm packing-box house, evidently fearing a trap, and had to be forcibly thrust in. But, once he had grasped its significance, he sublimated it to a den. Shrinking into the farthest corner, making himself as small as possible, he would peer from the darkness with wary green eyes. While the rest of the team lunged and screamed, wild to be off, at harnessing time, we had to pry him with a crowbar from the back of his house. Once in the harness, however, he strained far out at the end of the towline, holding his team taut in the most approved fashion. At the release of the brake, he was off like a shot, traveling sideways, crab-fashion, and casting swift furtive glances back across his shoulder at his driver and the dogs behind him.
Such were the six dogs which we had as nucleus for a team to drive in March to Barrow. Part of our preparation during these months of waiting was to have that team ready: well-broken to obey Earle’s voice; hardened to the trail; in prime condition.
Every night Earle cooked dog feed: a mulligan of seal or walrus, shorts, and seal oil in a five-gallon coal-oil can on the schoolroom heater. With an axe he hacked the frozen meat into chunks of suitable size, two to a dog, and filled the can with snow. When it boiled he stirred in meal. In spite of stirring, it always stuck, and filled the hallways with a strong rank smell of burnt seal mulligan. At about ten every night we put on our reindeer parkas and carried it out into the big snow hallway before the building. The steam rolled up in the stinging cold, filling the snow hall with a dense white cloud. Handling them cautiously with fox-skin mittens,
I spread out on the snow the six pans fashioned from cut-down coal-oil tins, and Earle divided the stew among them.
All this time the dogs were lunging, clamoring at their stakes, with sharp rattle of jerking chains. We left them shrieking, and ran inside for a moment to let their feed cool. Sometimes when we came back some scrawny furtive pariah lurked in the door, not quite daring to pounce upon the steaming food. Each carrying a pan, we made three trips out to the dogs. They wolfed the burnt mess in great gulps. In a moment the pans were licked clean. Ahboo, deathly afraid of heat, often flipped his pan over with deft paw and ate his portion from the snow.
As the dogs ate I would revolve slowly on the thick fur soles of my winter boots and look about me. Empty white landscape reached in all directions as far as the eye could see. Across the vast arch of the sky, studded with brilliant stars, luminous white streamers of light flowed and wavered. Crushed piles of ice glittered with chill beauty on the frozen sea. Close at hand in the awful immensity huddled a handful of igloos — dwellings of human beings. Puny mites. What did we matter in this vast emptiness? Would one more tiny atom matter?
As always toward the last, the time of waiting seemed unbearably long. Everything was now in readiness for the trip to Barrow. At Kokluk’s and Itta’s igloos, the two usual stops on the Barrow trail, frozen seal had been purchased and waited in caches to feed our dog team. Our good friend, James Angashuk, had promised additional dogs for the journey, the pick of his team, and the first week in March had been set as the time to start.
I would n’t let myself think of that journey. All day long for at least three days I must sit flat in a sled, legs extended in a desperately uncomfortable position. Hour after hour there would be the jolt of sled runners dropping from cake after cake of ice. I knew from Saturday runs out on the frozen sea what it would be like. On more than one occasion I had left the sled and scrambled laboriously over fragments of broken ice to avoid that sickening jar.
At night I should have to crawl somehow into tiny igloos, close and foul, crowded with Eskimos, and lie on the floor. A blizzard might hold us stormbound for days in some igloo. Anything might happen on that Barrow journey. I was anxious to have it over.
During the last months I was trying to break in a girl to help me. I must have help after the baby’s arrival, and now was the time to train someone.
At times I despaired of ever finding the efficient helper. The girls moved with incredible slowness about the tasks I set them. Isabel could take three hours to do the evening’s dishes. Mabel took two hours to wash half-adozen dishcloths. Without success I tried to prod or coax them to a faster pace.
At Icy Cape was Kiowuk’s adopted daughter, a half-breed, child of a member of some whaler’s crew. Faye was a pretty girl, and I hoped would show superior intelligence. I sent for her foster parents and asked if they would like her to stay at the schoolhouse, going to school and helping me.
Faye wanted to come. ‘I like,’ she said stolidly when questioned.
But her father and mother were full of fears. Through an interpreter her mother protested that she was afraid I would scold Faye; that I would make her work too hard; that she would be lonesome and cry. I appealed to Faye standing by, her face a mask.
‘How about it, Faye? Do you want to stay?’
’I like,’she reiterated in a monotone.
Another fear came out. Faye’s parents were afraid that she would spend her wages on herself instead of taking food for her parents.
This fear too was quieted, and they left, carrying a twenty-five-pound sack of flour, advance guaranty on Faye’s wages.
Within the week I wished that they had taken her along with the flour. She was sullenly resentful of every task I set her. She wanted to be out at play with the other boys and girls, yet would not or could not finish the dinner dishes and join them. All evening she pouted over the dishpan. When I invited other girls in to keep her company, she abandoned her work entirely and devoted herself to chatter and giggling. She spent laggard hours in dishpan and washtub, and as a result in a few weeks her hands, unaccustomed to that unfamiliar element, water, opened along all the lines, showing a network of bloody cracks. I salved and bandaged and waited on her while they healed, then, with a long breath of relief, sent her back to her parents at Icy Cape.
In the end the girl we chose was Mabel Adreenyah, oldest daughter of Segevan. Some teacher had named her Mabel, with more discrimination than was used in naming many, but we liked to call her by her Eskimo name, Adreenyah. She was as slow as any and no brighter, but she was cheerful and willing, not given to fits of pouting like Faye and Eva, and she came from the cleanest home in the village.
Segevan expanded visibly at our choice. ’All the time you tell Mabel to working something,’ he beamed proudly. ‘She will learn the quickly.’
Scrubbed, shampooed, dressed from the skin out in store clothes, she caused me no anxiety about her cleanliness. She helped me during the day, and stayed nights at the schoolhouse when Earle was away.
A month before the baby’s coming, knowing that he would n’t be able to leave later, Earle made a last trip to the reindeer herds. Mabel Adreenyah stayed at the house to keep me company. She was sleeping, dead to the world, in the upstairs storeroom on a night which emerges starkly from those last weeks of waiting.
Shortly after midnight I was awakened by a tapping at the wooden ventilator in the front-room window. I crept out of bed, threw a wrap about me, and went to the window. Outside the temperature was thirty-five below zero, and the blast of air that swept into the room when I opened the ventilator set me chattering. Outside stood Kotook’s wife, Betsy, her broad flat face a dim, fur-encircled blur. Her sleeves dangled limply, but she deftly slipped an arm back into one to gesture graphically, speaking in a mixture of Eskimo and broken English. Lucy, her stepdaughter, had been in labor for many hours, but the baby would not come forth.
We had been dreading this birth. Lucy, an unmarried girl of about nineteen, was paralyzed from the waist down. She had come recently from Icy Cape, where she had been living, and moved in with Kotook and Betsy. Ever since it became generally known in the village that she was pregnant the village ancients had been shaking doleful heads and saying, ‘The baby cannot come forth.’
We believed they spoke the truth, and, helpless to avert the tragedy, awaited the day of labor with a feeling of awful impotence. Now it had come, and Betsy wanted my help.
It was an impossible situation. Large and awkward as I now was, it was only with the greatest difficulty that I was able to insert myself into the tiny entrance of the snow hallways and creep along the dark inner passage. I no longer trusted my footing on the slippery ice outside; and, above all, I could do nothing for Lucy. I had never even seen a woman in labor, and this case required a surgeon. The usual midwives could do more for her than I. I gave Betsy medicine to accelerate labor and relieve pain, sent her away, and crept back to bed.
I was chilled through from standing at the window, and lay shivering, picturing horribly the scene at Kotook’s.
An hour dragged by. Then Betsy was back again. I felt a sharp surge of nausea as I crawled out of bed and went back to the window. Surely she brought word that Lucy lay dying.
But she had only returned to plead with me once more to come. Lucy was begging for me, convinced that the white oomalik could end her torture. Again I shook my head. I could not go.
I stood at the window watching Betsy shuffle dejectedly away across the snow, back to that scene in her igloo. No wonder she went slowly, on reluctant feet.
By now I was shivering so that my teeth rattled alarmingly together — nervousness and chill combined. I filled a hot-water bag from the steaming kettle always on the back of the stove, emptied more coal into both fires, and went back to bed. But there was no more sleep for me. I was feeling deathly ill. Pain racked my body. Perhaps this nervous strain would bring on premature delivery. My baby would be born with only native midwives to help, and Earle two days away at the reindeer herd!
Interminable hours passed while I lay watching faint gray seep through the ice coating of the windowpanes. Shafts of ruby fire slipped through crevices and painted the white walls crimson. I began to relax. Then suddenly there was a tapping at my window. I got out of bed and went toward it slowly. Betsy stood outside, her broad face beaming. The baby had been safely born, a fine big girl. She had given it to Grace and Charley. Lucy was sleeping quietly.
Suddenly I was sobbing. I ran back to bed, slid in, and slept and slept.
For days before the March mail team was due on its way south, rumors had been floating about, in the mysterious moccasin-telegraph fashion of frontier countries, to the effect that the Barrow doctor was coming down with Perry. This seemed improbable. We had no hope that he would make the hard three days’ trip in the bitter cold, and it was still three weeks before the date set for the baby’s arrival.
On the afternoon of March the third, Perry halted his long string of dogs before the schoolhouse and greeted us with a broad grin on his usually grave countenance.
‘You like see doctor?’ he inquired.
‘I’ll say we would. Is he coming down?’ Earle asked eagerly.
Without answering, Perry turned to his bulky sled and began unlashing the ropes which fastened his load. He threw back the canvas sled cover which had completely concealed it, and revealed a reindeer sleeping bag from which, bundled in layers of fur and wool, emerged the old Mission doctor.
Our reactions were mixed: heavenly relief at having him there, perturbation over the weeks of waiting ahead.
When I timidly hinted at the unnecessary earliness, ‘You can’t tell a thing about these first babies,’ he said. ‘Might be along two weeks early, or again two weeks late.’
I prayed, in the days that followed, that he would n’t be late. We made the doctor comfortable in the warm storage room above the kitchen through which the stovepipe passed, and began our watchful waiting. He was perpetually cold. While we kept the fires stocked until we suffered from the heat, he walked the floor in sealskin boots, muskrat breeches, heavy woolen mackinaw over flannel shirt, two suits of woolen underwear, fretting about his work at Barrow, and hoping that his wife was n’t suffering a nervous breakdown under the strain of carrying on alone.
Twenty-two interminable days passed while he moved restlessly from room to room, tapping with nervous fingers on the windowpanes, whistling incessantly snatches of a little restless tune.
A few of our worst medical cases he visited on special invitation: Papiglook, flat on his back with an angry carbuncle on his stomach; Tagarook’s John Harry with infected eyes. After these visits he came in and, without even washing his hands, went fussing about the house, while I lay taut thinking of our strongantiseptic hand scrubbings after such cases.
I had n’t realized before how recent are sterilization and hygiene of prevention. This old-school country doctor scoffed at such foolishness as boiling a string for tying the cord, or having sterile pads and bedding. Old newspapers and rags, soft twine from any parcel, were all he was accustomed to using. Torn by added misgivings, I waited anxiously for the time to arrive. Four o’clock on Sunday afternoon of March the twenty-fifth. The village, smothered under its blanket of snow, lay very still. The sun, sinking behind the jagged silhouette of the southern ice pack, sent warm shafts of crimson across the white unbroken miles to search out peepholes in the ice-sheathed windowpanes. Two hundred sled dogs slept at their stakes, disturbing the stillness by not so much as a whimper. Only in the big red and white schoolhouse in the centre of the village was there sound of life.
In the schoolroom the entire village was gathered. All heads were reverently bowed. One after another voices were raised in guttural prayer — prayer that went on and on in endless monotone. And the gist of all the prayers was this: —
’Let the oomalik’s baby come forth safely.’
Beyond the hallway that separated schoolroom from living quarters was great suspense, intolerable agony, and unbearable weariness. All night and all day the labor had gone on.
Then abruptly a thin small cry cut the tense waiting — the voice of a white baby. Two white humans alone in an Eskimo village in a frozen land. Now there were three of them.
Ookpik — Little White Owl — was born.