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Aleutian Sparrow

May-June 1942

Summer in Kashega

The old ones, Alexie and Fekla, they say,
"Go, Vera. Go to Kashega. See your mother, your friends.
It is only for the summer," they say.
"Go. Nothing will happen to us."

So I go, eager to visit Kashega,
Riding the mail boat out of Unalaska Bay as Alexie and Fekla Golodoff, and our snug house in Unalaska village, and my photographs and books, my little skiff,
And my twelve handsome chickens,
All fade into the fog.

What War?

I arrive in Kashega. My friends Pari and Alfred squabble over me like a pair of seagulls fighting for a crab claw. My mother greets me like a stranger, with an Americanchin hug, then touches my hair.
There is no sign of trouble here. We have crayon days, big and happy.
The windows sparkle at night.
I had forgotten how a lighted window shines without blackout paper.

The Japanese

They weren't always our enemy. There was a time when the Japanese sailed in and their crews played baseball with our Aleut teams.
But we saw what they were up to. We warned our government about Japanese who charted our shorelines, who studied our harbors from their fishing boats.
Our Japanese visitors expected always an amiable Aleut welcome. But when the hand of friendship was withdrawn,
They took their measurements and made their calculations anyway.

Life in Kashega

In the beginning, when I first moved away to Unalaska village to live with Alexie and Fekla Golodoff, I longed for Kashega. Kashega winter, when the men trap the blue fox. Kashega summer, when they hire themselves out to take the fur seal off the Pribilofs. All the Kashega year, with the boats bringing home sweet duck and fat sea lion.
Kashega autumns splash with salmon swimming into traps to become a winter of dry fish.
Sometimes sheep to shear, sometimes driftwood on the beach, sometimes an odd job.
And always Solomon's little store, lit by kerosene, where the men drink salmonberry wine and solve the problems of our people.

Solomon's Store

Zachary Solomon ran the Kashega store for ten years maybe.
But when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Zachary Solomon went to war.
Always a white man has run the store.
But my mother took over when Zachary Solomon left.
And she likes it.

Hot-Spring Memory

"Remember," I ask my mother, "how we visited Akutan
And walked the path up into the hills, passing the boiling springs, climbing higher, to where blossoms framed the steaming pools like masses of perfumed hair?
"Remember," I ask my mother, "how we waded in? Could we go again?"
"Maybe," she says, never looking up, lost in the pages of Life.

My Mother

My mother never talks about when she was young and she did not listen to the old ways to keep a man safe. How she closed her ears to the Aleut tales.
She never talks about how she met and fell in love with and married a white man, how she sent him to sea without a seal-gut coat. She never talks about the storms driving in and piling up the waves. How time after time she watched from the headlands, fighting the winds, waiting for my father's boat to come in.
She never says how I waited beside her, my fist crushing the seam of her skirt.
And she never, never talks about the day my father did not come home.

Even the Storms

Pari and I sit in the new spring grass watching a storm approach from the distance. "Have you missed Kashega?" she asks.
I nod, remembering the welcoming kitchens, the Christmas star of wood and glass,
The way our laughter crackled on winter nights like sugar frosting, the smell of our skin after a day gathering wildflowers in the summer hills.
Pari pulls me up with both hands, and we race to her house down the mountain path, wind walls rising around us, rain filling the gray cheeks of the sky.

White Orchid

"Last summer," I remind Pari as we dry off in her kitchen. "Last summer you led the way, carrying the fish basket to the far side of the lake. And we gathered bulbs of white orchid."
Pari says, "And Alfred's mother boiled the bulbs for us, and we rolled them in pools of warm fat and ate them with our fingers."
We lick our lips, remembering, and Pari combs out her hair and mine, and we promise to dig orchids again this August
When I get back with Alfred's family from fish camp.


She is more like my mother than I will ever be.
She likes all things cheechako.
She is only part Aleut, as I am, her father, like mine, a white man.
But while I like to sit with Alfred's family listening to the old stories, Pari prefers the store and my mother and the pages of the Sears and Roebuck catalog.

My Work

I was six when I stood outside Alfred's grandfather's house, where the old ways steep like tea in a cup of hours. Alfred's mother opened the door and gazed down at my small fists hanging by my sides. She understood my wanting. She said I could live in her house sometimes if I needed.
Eva, her daughter, dressed and fed me. She carried me on her hip like a big doll. Alfred, her son, taught me to fish and to row a skiff. The family taught me their stories.
I grew up seeing my mother every day, but spending most of my time in Alfred's house.
"Your work, Vera," Alfred's grandfather told me before I moved to Unalaska village, "your work is to know the ways of our people." I am good at my work.

Why I Left Kashega in the First Place

Not enough children to keep the school open.
And after my father died, I never listened to my mother.
Alexie and Fekla Golodoff, the old man and woman from Unalaska village,
They lived near a school. And they needed a girl to help them.

Unalaska Village

I tell Pari, "We have a hospital, a post office, restaurants, a movie theater, a store so big you could maybe fit half of Kashega inside it." Pari looks away, jealous.
"The men work as fishermen," I say, "in construction, as longshoremen and hunters. We have a deputy marshal and a commissioner.
We have a church, a beautiful church, which the Golodoffs care for like a blessed child."
"And how do they care for you?" Pari asks.

Life in Unalaska Village

"All our childrens are dead," the Golodoffs told me. "We are old people. We need someone to look out for us."
I clean for them. I carry and chop and fetch for them. I weave fresh grass rugs for them.
And they teach me to make things their way, like the seal-gut pants and the seal-gut coats, and they tell me stories every night. We are rich enough and we are happy enough
And I am away just for a little while to visit my mother and my friends in Kashega when the Japanese change everything.

Excerpted from ALEUTIAN SPARROW © Copyright 2002 by Karen Hesse. Reprinted with permission by Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.

Aleutian Sparrow
by by Karen Hesse

  • hardcover: 156 pages
  • Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry
  • ISBN-10: 0689861893
  • ISBN-13: 9780689861895