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Vo l . 6 N o . 2 mugs, and a crusted can of evaporated milk with two holes punched in the top. The walls were hung with parkas, mukluks, old photographs and a rifle. Two double beds were pushed end to end on one side of the room. On the floor stood a wooden playpen nearly as weathered as the house. In it, on a blanket, lay a lean baby who looked between four and six months old. As I sat in the kitchen chair Mrs. Gilbert had dragged over to me, the man across the room drew his thick brows together. Then he pulled a huge handsaw onto his lap and began rasping a file across the rusty teeth, back and forth, back and forth, his eyes tight with anger. I turned to the health aide. “Please tell them I need to ask about the baby. How old is he?” After she passed on my words in Yup’ik, there was angry talking among the three of them before she turned back to me. “8 months. They say Daniel is fine.” “What else did they say?” “They are mad. They think I tell you to come.” Well, she had; the letter came from her. All the more reason she shouldn’t be the translator. “Has he ever been sick?” More arguing in Yup’ik, then, “No. Never sick.” I had done childcare with babies all through college, but I didn’t consider myself an expert in developmental milestones despite studying them ad nauseum in grad school. Still, I saw that Daniel wasn’t normal. He lay on his side passively, sometimes patting the blanket. I believed an eight month old should sit up, grab anything in sight, crawl and grip the bars of the playpen to try pulling himself to his feet. If he had toys, would Daniel clutch and bang them? He wasn’t playing with his hands or feet or rattling the playpen. Though not fat, neither was he skeletal though he was pale and lethargic and had dark circles under his eyes. “Was he born early?” I asked. “No,” said the aide. “Please ask the mother.” Angry exchange of words. “No.” “What does he eat?” “Milk. Mashed potatoes. Baby food.” I saw no jars of baby food, but perhaps they were stored on a shelf. Villagers didn’t have electricity, so there was no refrigerator. “Do they have food stamps?” This program was brand new in 1968 and hadn’t yet reached all the villages. “Some.” Mrs. Gilbert slapped her thighs, stood and pulled

a plastic baby bottle from the cupboard. Glaring at me, she filled it halfway with water from the barrel and added evaporated milk. After shaking it, she held it out to Daniel, who grabbed it with both hands and put it to his mouth. This was the standard formula in villages, I’d heard. Across the room, Mr. Gilbert still filed the saw’s teeth, his eyes boring into mine. Without breaking visual contact with him, I told the aide, “Please ask if I may take the baby to doctors in Bethel, because he might be sick and not gaining enough weight.” “He will be mad.” “I know, but I have to try to help them and the baby.” The health aide stood and placed the wood chair in front of her. Halfway through her speech, the father bolted up and held the saw upright with its teeth aimed in my direction. This message I understood without a translator. I rose slowly, trying to project calm though my hands were trembling. “I will go now. I may come back with the Trooper.” I’d failed to win the Gilbert’s trust. Worse, it had taken me only 4 weeks to devolve into a despicable social worker who made threats. If only I had more experience, I thought, or at least a bit of guidance from a skilled supervisor! Then I might have known how to persuade the Gilberts to cooperate instead of to chase me away with a rusty saw. * I’d walked from the Gilbert’s home to the BIA teacher Mrs. Bender’s living quarters. There I’d found Dinsmore on the couch, scarfing down chocolate chip cookies and coffee. That evening, Mrs. Bender, a middleaged, stolid woman with home-permed grey curls, served us canned spaghetti and canned green beans. Dinsmore regaled us with tales of his talks with village council members about a BIA grant whose details I didn’t catch. Then Dinsmore slept on the pull-out couch and I got the guest room. BIA teachers housed travelers regularly. The next morning, we asked the way to the Children’s Home. Both of us needed to see it. “You can’t go there.” Mrs. Bender’s attitude conveyed, correctly though with great haughtiness, how ignorant we were about the Bush. “It’s on the other side of the river. This is freeze-up. The ice is still thin. You can’t go by skidoo or ski plane yet. Later when it’s thick, it’ll be a highway. Trucks, skidoos, planes, you name it. Right now

Profile for Michael Burwell

Cirque, Vol. 6 No. 2  

A Journal for the North Pacific Rim

Cirque, Vol. 6 No. 2  

A Journal for the North Pacific Rim

Profile for burwellm
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