Authors: Bonnie Leon
“Glad to be here.” Paul turned to look at a small village that huddled against the frigid Arctic. Icy wind tugged at the ruff of his hood and burned his cheeks. He pulled his hood closed around his face. “It’s freezing out here.”
“Outsiders,” Joe said with a laugh.
The three worked together to secure the Bellanca. The oil was drained, the engine covered, and the craft securely tied down before they headed toward the village. Wind swirled particles of ice off the frozen ground, creating a sparkling mist in the fading light.
As they’d traveled, Paul’s respect for Kate had grown. She was an incredible woman. He grabbed hold of her arm and stopped her. Joe kept moving.
“Kate.” How did he say what he felt?
“What is it?” She stared at him with a puzzled expression.
“I just want you to know . . . I didn’t understand.” He blew out a breath. “All this time . . . I didn’t get it—the risks you take, the kind of life you lead, the lives you touch. I’m so proud of you.” He glanced at Joe’s back, then gave Kate a quick kiss. “You’re amazing.”
“No, I’m not.” Tears washed into her eyes and she shook her head. “I’m not even close to anything like that.”
“You are,” Paul said. “Don’t let your past hold you back.”
“I’m not. Why are you?”
ind and cold chased Paul into the Turchiks’ home, a combination mercantile and living quarters. It was small, overly warm, packed with provisions and furniture, and smelled of cooking meat.
Three youngsters barreled into Kate and hugged her. The littlest one, a girl, clung to Kate’s legs. Paul wasn’t sure he’d ever seen more beautiful children. Straight black hair framed tanned round faces.
Kate hugged the youngsters all at once. “Oh, how I’ve missed you.”
Angel pushed her way in. The children buried their hands in her fur, and the smaller of the two boys wrapped his arms around the dog’s neck. “Hi, Angel. You’re the best dog ever.”
The taller boy smiled up at Kate. “We’re happy you came.”
“Me too.” Kate gave him an extra hug.
The youngster hanging on to Angel said, “I have something for you.” He hurried to a table, picked up a piece of paper, and ran back to Kate. “It’s a picture of the flowers and mountains—the way they look in summer.” He held out his artwork and pointed at the drawing. “And that is the sun.”
“What fine work, Nick.” Kate took the gift. “It’s nice to be reminded how beautiful it is here when the sun is warm.”
He smiled broadly. “We have a lot of sunshine in the summer.”
The little girl lifted her arms, demanding to be picked up. Kate hefted her and rested the child on one hip. “Mary, I swear you’ve put on ten pounds since I last saw you.”
“The way she eats, she’ll soon outgrow her brothers,” said Nena, who looked like an older version of the little girl.
“She has a way to go to do that.” Kate rested a hand on the older boy’s head. “Peter, you’re getting tall.” He straightened, as if trying to add more height to his stocky frame.
Kate looked around the room. Even though it was packed with store goods, Nena had managed to give it a homey feel. “It’s good to be here.”
Nena wrapped Kate and Mary in a hug. “We are thankful for you.” She turned to Paul with a smile. “And it’s good to see you again.”
“You’re looking well.” Paul gazed at her healthy brown face as he tugged off his gloves. “How are you feeling?”
“No headaches, dizziness?”
“No. None. My balance isn’t always just right, but it’s getting better.” She smiled, showing off-white teeth. “Thank you for coming. There are many villagers who wish to see you.”
“Good. And I’m glad you’re feeling fit. For a while there, the doctors weren’t sure you’d pull through.” Paul felt a knot in his gut at the memory of Joe’s vigil at Nena’s bedside. Not so different from the one he’d once held, only Joe and Nena had been given a happy ending.
“I have God and good doctors to thank.” Nena glanced upward. “He was with me and so was Kate. I’d never have made it if she hadn’t dragged me out of that plane and then watched over me.” She gave Kate an extra hug.
“I could never desert you,” Kate said. “We had quite an adventure.” She gave Nena a one-armed hug.
“We are grateful,” Joe said, then turning to Paul added, “and the people of Kotzebue are very happy to have a doctor here.”
“I hope I can be of help.” Fear niggled at Paul. What if he let them down?
“These are my children.” Joe nodded at one of the boys. “Nick is five.” He smiled at Paul. The tallest of the three stood beside his father. Joe rested a hand on his shoulder. “Peter is seven.” He turned to Kate and the little girl in her arms. “And Mary is two.”
Nena moved to a small kitchen range. “I made caribou stew. I hope you like it.” She lifted a lid from a pan on the stove and steam billowed into the air. Using a wooden spoon, she stirred the meal.
Joe moved to the front room and dropped into a chair. “Paul, sit.” He picked up a pipe and tobacco from a table made out of an empty barrel. He offered them to Paul.
“Thanks.” Paul took the pipe and dumped tobacco into its bowl, pressing it down with his thumb. Joe lit it and Paul drew on the pipe until smoke drifted into the air. He took several puffs, and then held up the pipe. “Good,” he said, although it tasted of cheap tobacco.
“Not so good,” Joe said. “But it will do.” He filled another pipe, clamped his teeth on the bit, and sucked air through the stem. “You been to Kotzebue before?” He settled back in his chair.
“No. It’s a lot different from where I live on Bear Creek. But it looks like a nice little town.” That wasn’t exactly true. There didn’t seem to be much commerce, and the homes and businesses were tiny and in need of repair, but Paul wasn’t about to hold back a compliment. He understood how important a person’s community could be to them.
“Most people never been here.” Joe crossed one leg over the other. “You like it on Bear Creek?”
“Yes. There’s lots of timber, and I’ve got a snug cabin and fine neighbors. The fishing and hunting are good too.”
Joe nodded and then concentrated on smoking.
Paul rummaged around his mind for something more to say. “You do much hunting?”
“Sure. Seals and bear. Sometimes caribou or moose. And fish fill the rivers in the summer.” He drew deeply on his pipe and, without looking at Paul, asked, “You want to catch some cod?”
“This time of year? Up here?”
“They’re under the ice. Just cut a hole in it and you can get ’em.” He smiled. “I’ll teach you if you want.”
“I’d like that.”
The sound of giggles carried out from the kitchen where Kate and Nena stood side by side finishing preparations for the evening meal. A memory of Susan and his sister ambushed Paul. They’d been standing just like that, cooking together and chatting. An ache rose from his chest and into his throat. Would he ever stop missing her?
“I think there will be many people here to see you tomorrow.” Joe’s words cut into Paul’s thoughts.
“Oh? How many do you expect?”
Joe shrugged. “Most of the town. Even if they’re not sick, they will come to meet you and to see if you are a good doctor.” His eyes smiled.
“I look forward to meeting them.”
“Some don’t trust people from the outside.” Joe removed the pipe from his mouth. “They’re used to Alex Toognak, our medicine man. He’s wise and able.”
“Maybe you can introduce us.” Paul respected traditional practices, believing there was room for both modern medicine and the old ways. He knew if his views got out to other physicians he’d be ridiculed, but he couldn’t deny the power of natural healing. “Joe, it might help if you let people know I’m not from the outside. I’ve been living in Alaska nearly five years now.”
Joe grinned. “Anyone who does not live in the Arctic is from the outside.”
It does feel like the end of the world
After dinner, the family gathered in the front room. Joe had promised to tell the children a story.
Kate sat on the floor beside Paul’s chair. He noticed a glance between the women, and Nena held back a giggle. Kate must have told her about them. Contentment warmed his insides and he gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. She leaned against his leg. He liked that.
Lanterns and candles flickered, creating wavering shadows on the walls. The children waited, their eyes alight.
“Tell us the one about the great whale,” Peter said.
“No. I want to hear about the bear that hides in the snow,” said Nick.
Joe sat on the floor with the boys. He was quiet for a few moments, and then he said, “Tonight I will tell you a new story. It is about birds that saved a man’s life.”
“Birds saved a man?” Peter asked. “How can that be?”
“With God all things are possible.” Joe smiled.
“Tell us,” Nick nearly shouted.
“The Bible says that long ago there was a man named Elijah. He was a prophet of the one true God.”
The boys’ eyes didn’t move from their father. Resting in her mother’s arms, Mary looked sleepy.
Paul had been enchanted by the idea of storytelling, but he wasn’t interested in a Bible story. He wished there were a polite way to excuse himself.
“In the land where Elijah lived, there was no rain for a very long time. Elijah had told the people that would happen.”
“Why would he stop the rain?” Peter asked.
“He didn’t stop it, God did. But Elijah told the king that a drought was coming.”
Peter nodded but looked perplexed.
“We don’t always understand why God does a thing, only that he is always right.”
When Joe finished the story, Peter asked, “Why would a bird feed a man?”
“It was the power of God, who can do all things.” He smiled at his son, his eyes crinkling at the corners.
Paul forced himself not to grimace at his answer.
What was right about taking my wife and son? Why would you do such a thing?
Nena stood. “It is time for sleeping.”
The children gave hugs all around, and then Nena bundled them off to their room in the back of the house. She returned a few minutes later, her arms full of blankets. “Kate, we have a bed for you with the children. I hope you don’t mind sharing with them.”
“Not at all.”
“We have a tick mattress you can use,” she told Paul. “Joe will bring it out.”
“That suits me fine.” Paul stood. “I’d better get some sleep. Tomorrow will be a busy day.”
Accompanied by the children’s quiet snores, Kate snuggled beneath her blankets. Her mind wandered back over the last several days. Working with Paul had been gratifying. The more she watched him, the more her admiration grew. He was highly skilled. And she didn’t mind assisting, at least most of the time.
The bond between them had grown stronger. Yet she felt as if Paul were holding back part of himself. He didn’t speak about his life before Alaska, and each time it came up he’d deflect the conversation. What was he hiding? It must be something really bad, because it seemed to have stolen his faith. He was angry at God.
She rolled onto her side. Whatever it was, Kate couldn’t pry it from him. He would have to tell her in his own time. She whispered a prayer for Paul as she fell asleep.
Kate opened her eyes and looked around the dimly lit room. With a yawn, she stretched her arms over her head and looked about. The children were gone. Then she remembered that soon people would be arriving to see Paul. They might already be here. She flung back her blankets and sat up. She’d be needed.
By the time she made her way to the kitchen, Nena had a meal of flapjacks and eggs prepared. Paul was already eating.
Someone had placed a cabinet between the kitchen area and the front room. Kate guessed it was there to serve as a privacy wall.
“You like some coffee?” Nena asked.
“Thank you.” Kate sat across from Paul. “So, you ready?”
“Absolutely,” Paul said, a little too emphatically.
Kate wondered if he was nervous. She was sure it had been awhile since he’d seen patients regularly.
Nena set a cup of coffee in front of her. “No milk. Sorry.”
“This is fine.” Kate took a sip. “Where’s Joe?”
“He’s helping a friend fix a sled. You hungry?”
“Starved. Breakfast smells delicious.” Kate looked up and found Paul watching her. Feeling as if she ought to say something, she asked, “Did you sleep well?”
“I did.” He leaned back in his chair. “You?”
“Like a log.” Paul continued to gaze at her, his expression a mix of humor and adoration. A shiver of pleasure moved through Kate.
Nena set a plate of flapjacks and eggs in front of her.
“Thanks, Nena. You didn’t have to go to so much trouble.”
“Yes I do. You will work hard today. You need good food.”
“It smells good.” Kate spread butter on the pancakes. “Since I didn’t help with breakfast, I’ll do the dishes.”
“No. You are a guest, and you and Paul will need your strength. He said that you help him.”
Kate looked across the table at him. “So, I’m to be a nurse again?”
He speared the last bite of pancake, dipped it in a puddle of syrup, and forked it into his mouth. “Hope you don’t mind. You’re good at it.”
A knock sounded at the door. “People are already here.” Nena hurried to open it.
A woman and two children stood on the stoop, huddling against the cold. “We heard the doctor is here?”
“Yes. Come in.” Nena opened the door wide and stepped back. She had the look of a child on Christmas morning. “Paul, your first patient.”