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«A Grave Denied», Dana Stabenow

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Kate Shugak Mysteries, No. 13, 2003

Friday, May 2

Ms. Doogan wants us to keep a journal this summer for freshman English next fall. What we write about is up to us. Great, no pressure there. She says she wants a page a day from each of us. Glad I don’t have to read them all.

I didn’t know what to write at first, I mean I’m just not that interesting. But I was over at Ruthe’s cabin the other afternoon, looking through all the pictures she has of animals in the Park. I told her about the journal and she gave me a copy of My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, this kid who lived on an island off the coast of Greece way back before World War II. This kid never met a bug he didn’t like, plus animals and birds. Plus his family was crazy. I can relate. It’s kind of fun, or it would be if every time I put it down Kate didn’t pick it up and start reading it. I don’t mind living with her but I wish she’d keep her hands off my books. At least till I’ve finished reading them.

So anyway, this journal. I’m starting it even before school is out, that ought to get me extra points. I’m going to be like Gerry, I’m going to write about the birds and animals I see every day on the homestead. Like today I watched a moose cow have a calf in the willows out back of the cabin. Talk about disgusting, he sort of oozed out in this gooey sack and then his mom licked it off him. The calf is so tiny, I’ve never seen a moose so small. He was totally gross at first, all bloody and icky from being born. The cow kept licking him until he was clean and his hair was standing up in cowlicks (now I know what that word means) all over his body and finally she nudged him to his feet. His legs were so skinny they looked like pick-up sticks. He couldn’t stand up straight on them, one always kept bending out from under him and down he’d go on his nose. I couldn’t tell if he was a boy or a girl at first, I had to go get the binoculars to see if he had a penis. He did.

Kate keeps warning me not to get too close to the animals already, she’d probably freak if she knew I was going to write a whole journal about them. Vanessa says Kate’s probably afraid a bear is going to rip my head off. If one smells that calf it could happen I guess. I’ll be careful.

Van and I are looking for jobs for the summer. We both want to make some money, Van doesn’t even get an allowance. I was thinking maybe we could find someone who lives in the Park who fishes in Prince William Sound who needs help picking fish. There’s an old woman named Mary who’s some kind of relative of Kate’s who has a setnet site on Alaganik Bay. That would be cool.

1

Yuck!“ The pool of slush covered the road from snow berm to snow berm and thirteen-year-old Andrea Kvasnikof had just stepped in it up to her ankle and over the tops of her brand-new, white on white Nike Kaj. ”Ms. Doogan! Ms. Doogan, my shoe’s all wet!“

“This is where the leading edge of Grant Glacier was in 1778,” Ms. Doogan said, standing in front of a signpost surrounded by the seventeen students of the seventh and eighth grade classes of Niniltna Public School. “Who can tell me what else happened in Alaska that year?”

“The Civil War started!” cried Laurie Manning, a redheaded virago who seemed always to be on the verge of declaring war herself.

“No, the Revolutionary War!” yelled Roger Corley, a dark-browed eighth-grader who wasn’t going to let some little old seventh-grade baby go unchallenged.

“Not a war, stupids,” Betty Freedman said calmly. Betty always spoke calmly, an unnerving quality in an adolescent. She didn’t peer over the tops of her glasses only because she had twenty-twenty vision and didn’t need them, but it was impossible not to imagine two round lenses perched on her nose, magnifying her big blue eyes and increasing her resemblance to an owl. With all that fine white-blond hair, a great snowy owl. She even blinked slowly. “That was the year Captain Cook sailed to Alaska, wasn’t it, Ms. Doogan.”

It wasn’t a question, it was a statement of fact. “Yes, it was, Betty,” Ms. Doogan said.

“He anchored in Turnagain Arm on June first,” Betty said.

Ms. Doogan made a praiseworthy attempt not to grit her teeth. It didn’t help that Betty knew as much history as her teacher did, and sometimes more. Ms. Doogan glanced back to see Moira Lindbeck, the one parent she’d managed to coerce along on this field trip, roll her eyes. She faced forward quickly- it would never do to laugh-and continued up the trail, moving to the gravel shoulder to miss an ice overflow rapidly liquifying in this warm spring morning. Bare green stalks of wild rice clustered together in the ditch, loitering with intent, waiting for the temperature to get high enough to burst into bud. She paused next to another signpost and waited for the class to catch up. “This is where the leading edge of the glacier was in 1867. What happened that year?”

They all knew this and they said so in chorus. “The United States bought Alaska from Russia!” Somebody turned a cartwheel, kicking muddy water all over Andrea Kvasnikof’s lime green down jacket. Andrea did not suffer this in silence.

Betty Freedman waited for the furor to the down. “For seven point two million dollars.”

Ms. Doogan, the breeze soft on her cheek and the heat of the sun on her hair, felt suddenly more in charity with the world and smiled down at Betty. Besides, she knew that behind her back Moira Lindbeck was rolling her eyes again. “Yes.”

“Seven cents an acre.”

Ms. Doogan transferred the smile to Johnny Morgan. The tallest boy in the class, with a serious brow beneath an untidy thatch of dark brown hair that fell into deep-set blue eyes, Johnny seldom volunteered information. He seemed older than the other students, and every now and then Ms. Doogan caught an expression on his face that she thought might indicate something between tolerance and scorn. She had the feeling that he was only putting up with her until the end of the school year. Indeed, he seemed merely to be marking time until the day he turned sixteen, when he could legally quit school. Which would be a pity, as Johnny Morgan was one of the brightest students she’d ever had the privilege of teaching. She’d tried to reach him all year, but while he was unfailingly polite, he remained aloof. He did his work well and got it in on time in more or less readable shape, or as readable as you could expect from a kid living in a log cabin with no electricity. He was attentive and respectful, but she was always conscious of the shield he had erected around himself, high and wide and, by her, impenetrable.

“Seward’s Folly,” a small voice said. Ms. Doogan looked down in some surprise. Vanessa Cox, short, slight, dressed year round in Carhartt’s bib overalls with a turtleneck beneath in winter and a T-shirt in summer. It was economical, Ms. Doogan supposed, and even a practical solution to dressing a child to go out in any weather in the Alaska Bush, but every time she saw the girl she had to repress an urge to break out the crinolines, or even just a lipstick. If it weren’t for the delicate features of her face and the braid of thick fine dark hair that hung to below her waist, it would have been hard to tell that Vanessa was a girl. “That’s right, Vanessa,” she said, smiling. “ Alaska proved them wrong on that, though.”

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