Read Diamond willow Online

Authors: Helen Frost

Diamond willow

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For

Glen,

strong and

brave, whose

eyes shine like

blueberries

in warm

sun.

AUTHOR'S NOTE

Diamond Willowtakes place in Old Fork, a fictional town of about six hundred people, located on a river in interior Alaska.

There are no paved roads in and out of town; people travel by airplane, boat, snowmachine, and dogsled. They drive around Old Fork in cars, pickups, and four-wheelers, which are brought into town on a barge during the summer months when the river is not frozen.

Willow, the main character, is part Athabascan. Through her mother, she is descended from people who have lived in Alaska for many centuries. Her ancestors on her father's side came from Europe and migrated across Canada and the United States for about 160 years before her father settled in Old Fork.

Most of the story is told in diamond-shaped poems, with a hidden message printed in darker ink at the center of each one. I got this idea from a lamp and a walking stick, both made of diamond willow. The lamp was made by Dr. Irving Preine as a wedding gift for my parents; I remember it from my childhood. As an adult, I lived in Telida, a small Athabascan community in interior Alaska, on the Kuskokwim River, near Mount McKinley. I taught all the students in Telida School, five to ten students in kindergarten through sixth grade. When I left, Deaphon Eluska, the grandfather of two of my students, gave me a diamond willow walking stick that he found near Telida and peeled, sanded, and polished to a beautiful finish. That stick hung in my study as I thought about this story and composed the poems.

Diamond willow grows in northern climates. It has rough gray bark, often crusted with gray-green lichen. Removing the bark and sanding and polishing the stick reveals reddish-brown diamonds, each with a small dark center.

Some people think that diamond willow is a specific type of willow, like weeping willow or pussy willow, but it is not. The diamonds form on several different kinds of shrub willows when a branch is injured and falls away. The dark center of each diamond is the scar of the missing branch.

The scars, and the diamonds that form around them, give diamond willow its beauty, and gave me the idea for my story.

 

 

7

a.m.

Twenty

below zero,

ribbons of white

and green and purple

dancing in the blue-black sky.

I'm up with Dad as usual, feeding

our six dogs. I climb the ladder to the cache,

toss four dried salmon out to Dad. He watches

me as I back down:Be careful on that broken rung.

I pack snow into the dog pot;Dadgets a good fire going

in the oil-drum stove. Heloves these dogslike I do. We're

both out here on weekends,as much aswe can be, and every

day before and after school.He lovesRoxy most.Willow, go

get the pliers,he says, showingmea quill in Roxy's foot.

(It's surprising that a porcupine is out this time of year.)

I bring the pliers; Dad pulls out the quill, rubs in salve;

then we go from dog to dog, spreading fresh straw.

Hey, Magoo. Hey, Samson. Roxy, you stay off

that foot today. Dad pats Prince on the head.

Lucky sniffs my hand—she smells salmon.

I find a bur in Cora's ear and get it out.

The snow melts into water, simmers

in the cooking pot. I drop in the

salmon, add some cornmeal.

The dogs love that smell.

They start to howl

and I howl

back.

 

I

was

named

after a stick.

The way Mom tells it,

she couldn't get Dad to agree

on any names: Ellen, after Grandma?

Sally, after Dad's great-aunt in Michigan?

No, he wanted something modern, something

meaningful.It will come to us,Dad kept saying.

Let's hope it comes before the baby learns to walk,

saidMom.Alwaysdoes,said Dad. That's how they

argue, eachknows whatthey want, but neither seems

to think itmattersmuch who wins. Since Mom gives

in before Dadmostof the time, Dad gets his way a lot.

He told me that just before I was born, he found a small

stand of diamond willow and brought home one stick.

That's it! Let's name our baby Diamond Willow!

Mom had to think about it for a few days.

I can see it now: They're on the airplane

flying to Anchorage. Mom's in labor,

she'll agree to almost anything.

Okay,she says. So Dad puts

Diamond Willow on my

birth certificate, and

then Mom says,

We will call

the baby

Willow.

 

If

my

parents

had called

me Diamond,

would I have been

one of those sparkly

kinds of girls? I'm not

sparkly. I'm definitely not

a precious diamond—you know,

the kind of person everyone looks at

the minute she steps into a room. I'm the

exact opposite:I'm skinny, average height,

brown hair,and ordinaryeyes. Good. I don't

want to sparklelike ajewel. I would much rather

blend in thanstickout. Also, I'm not one of

those dog-obsessed kids who talk about

nothing but racing in the Jr. Iditarod.

I like being alone with my dogs

on the trail. Just us, the trees,

the snow, the stories I see

in the animal tracks.

No teachers, no

parents, no

sneak-up-

on-you

boys.

 

In

the

middle

of my family

in the middle of

a middle-size town

in the middle of Alaska,

you willfindmiddle-size,

middle-kid,me. My father

teaches science in the middle

of my middle school. My mother

is usually in the middle of my house.

My brother, Marty, taller and smarter

than I ever hope to be, goes to college in

big-city Fairbanks. My sister, Zanna (short

for Suzanna), is six years younger and

twelve inches shorter than I am.

She follows me everywhere—

except for the dog yard.

I don't know why

my little sister is

so scared of

dogs.

 

What

I love

about dogs:

They don't talk

behind your back.

If they're mad at you,

they bark a couple times

and get it over with. It's true

they slobber on you sometimes.

(I'm gladpeopledon't do that.) They

jump out andscareyou in the dark. (I know,

I should sayme, not “you”—some people aren't

afraid of anything.) But dogs don't make fun

of you. They don't hit you in the back

of your neck with an ice-covered

snowball, and if they did, and

it made you cry, all their

friends wouldn't stand

there laughing

at you.

(Me.)

 

Three

votes! Did they

have to announce that?

Why not just say,Congratulations

to our new Student Council representative,

Richard Olenka.Whysay how many votes each

person got (12, 7, 3)? Idon'tknow why I decided to

run in the first place. A couplepeoplesaid I should,

and I thought, Why not? (I don'tlikestaying after

school, and no one would listen tomeeven if

I did have anything to say, which I don't.)

Now here I am, home right after school,

and as soon as we finish feeding

the dogs, Dad says,Willow,

could you help me clean

out the woodshed?

I say,Okay,but

it feels like

I'm getting

punished

for being

a loser.

 

We're

cleaning

the woodshed,

and I lift up a tarp.

An old gray stick falls out.

Just a stick.Whydoes it even catch

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