Wandering Alaska's frozen tundra, it was only a matter of time that I would cross paths with a fireside story that would haunt me enough that I had to capture it. A Yupik woman told me of life in her village of Quinhagak when she was 10 years old.
My father told me to stay out of one of the cabins in our village. He gave no reason other than to say that I would regret it if I went there. I tried to obey, but kids that age are not known for being able to resist temptation. I waited until no one was around and then snuck into the forbidden cabin, which remained unlocked as are most cabins in the village.
In the middle of the main room stood a large block of ice reaching almost to the ceiling. Inside the ice, I could see a young man, frozen and silent. One arm stretched above his head, reaching for the ceiling, but his hand drooped, as if in a ballet pose. As I cautiously circled the huge ice block, the face came into view, and I recognized him as one of the village youths.
I screamed with my mouth clenched shut, and ran from the cabin.
My father found me that evening, silent and hiding on the floor in a dark corner of our cabin.
"You went into the Ayaginaar's cabin," he asked, "didn't you?"
I nodded with my head between my knees.
He sat down next to me, crossed his legs, and pulled me into his lap. With his arms around me, I finally let myself cry.
"What was," I sobbed, "who was?"
"Young Aganiq," whispered my father. "He went to get water. He chopped down into the ice but must have made a mistake or slipped. He fell in and that is how he was found. We cut him out so we could return him to his parents."
"But are they not afraid," I asked, "to see him like that?"
"Afraid? How could they be afraid of the boy they brought into the world, the son they watched grow into a strong young man? Sadness has embraced them as tightly as the ice has their son."
"Where is his father?"
"With me. We spend our days with pickaxes chipping away the frozen ground for Aganiq's grave."
"At the end of each day," continued her father softly, "his beard is a rock of tears."
Eventually the village fathers finished their work and Aganiq's wake began. Prayers, songs, and stories of his boyhood as his mother and father stoked the fire that slowly released him from his prison.
This is the story she told me; the wound she chose to reveal to a stranger who cared enough to listen.
In my cot those nights, warm and with my heart unbroken, I dreaming of Mrs. Ayaginaar laying her ungloved hand against the ice a few inches from her son's face, waiting for the life-taking water to melt away and release him back to her.
Copyright © 2014 Peter Shikli