"Pelly Crossing" by Brad Harvie.
© Please do not reproduce without artist's permission.
by Suemi Chiba
He is dead before he arrives. Wayne brings him in the maroon Toyota pickup, the one with scratches down the side from driving through the brush last winter. The beaver comes in one of those aluminum tubs we put the dead fish in when the salmon are running.
Karin and I had been waiting on the riverbank at Wayne’s mum’s place, the last cabin on the edge of Pelly Crossing. Pelly is a subarctic village in the Yukon, Canada — it has an air of ghosts, and right now, sits in the explosion of summer after an eight-month winter. Summer means transformation, like the beaver who will turn from beast to hide, into the cuffs of slippers or a winter hat that will turn back minus 40.
Wayne says the beaver couldn’t have put up much of a fight because he wasn’t tangled in the net. His death was an accident; the nets had been dropped and left to catch salmon. The beaver has limbs stiff, belly out, big buckteeth jutting from his open mouth. The beaver’s teeth are orange and curved, two inches long and look hungry for trees.
I remember the summer afternoon when Karin and I stood as we are now facing the river, scraping hair off a moose hide that was hung on a pole.
“I would love to learn the whole process. Hunting all the way to making something,” I had said to Karin, trying to keep the hair from flying in my face.
“Yeah what would you make?” Like me, Karin had come north from a city, pulled by the wilderness, eager to develop traditional living skills. She’d been here a year, learning from elders.
“I don’t know. I made a deer skin drum once and gloves with rabbit fur on the inside. But never the whole process.”
“I have,” she said casually, “I did a moose hide last year and a beaver. I can show you, all we need is an animal,” she smiled.
“Okay we can go hunting.” I laughed; she made a face and shrugged.
I jump the first time I touch him, and keep thinking he’ll wake and leap up, as if he is only sleeping. His fur is thick and whole. He has a luscious pelt, good for the cuffs of many pairs of slippers. I am surprised by how soft his fur is and by the smooth velvet feel of his feet. I bend the toes and stroke the soft padding where they are webbed. The rest of him is rigid, but his feet remain soft and flexible.
Beaver has a strong smell, a concoction of old leather, rancid meat, wild game and car oil. The pine shed Wayne and his dad built soon fills with this smell.
I’ve been in Pelly, home of the Selkirk First Nation, for seven months. Wayne and Sandy have taken me in, treated me like family. I’d dreamed of coming back to the Yukon since a teenage-summer I had spent travelling between remote communities, helping host camps for kids who would otherwise not have the opportunity to attend one. I’m a social worker now and Pelly Crossing is a challenge with many rewards. It is a First Nation village that has been struck by the history of abusive residential schools. It’s also a community that wants the best for their kids. A place where there are still immense stretches of forest bound by rivers and you can imagine living like the ancestors — hunting, fishing, gathering.
To begin we tie one leg to the table, then stretch out his body and tie his other limbs tight so he can’t slip. Karin instructs me to cut up the middle, starting at the bottom, after cutting round the genitals. Then tells me to cut up each limb, ringing around the hands and feet. She shows me how to pop the hands and feet through the holes and I cringe. On a larger beaver, you have to break the toes to get them through. The thought is heartbreaking. Luckily this beaver is small and we can just fold up the feet and push them.
To remove the fur from the beaver’s sides and back, Karin demonstrates, moving quickly in bold strokes, the pelt slipping away from his body with each slice of the blade. I am much slower, cautious, tediously gleaning the hide from the animal. There is no blood. As the fur comes away he looks more human; he is a soft bright pink, like the inside of a mouth. He looks like an old man. I fight feelings of loss for the animal, consoling myself with the fact that he was already dead when he came to us.
When you skin a beaver you have to grasp the fur tight. The motion is rhythmic and if you get a sharp knife at the right angle the fur and flesh separate smoothly, it's like peeling the paper off the back of a sticker. The idea is to get as much flesh off as you can without poking any extra holes through the hide. When I am not working with the knife, I help hold the beaver as Karin tugs and cuts.
After his fur is gone, he lies there naked, fleshy and pink, and again I think of an old man with a belly full of dinner. Whenever I ask about eating beaver people make the kind of face kids do when they eat something sour. They tell me it’s thick and oily and that people only eat it when they have to. As for this particular beaver, even when Wayne had first found him in the net, he’d been dead long enough that the meat had spoiled.
When we are done we put the hide in the freezer. We take the beaver’s body out in the bush, close to the where all the fox kits are, so their momma can take him. The fox dens are lined up along the side of the highway, I often see the little foxes curled up inside. When we roll the beaver down the hill toward the dens, twigs and leaves stick to his moist flesh. He comes to a resting-place against an old log. We hope that a bear won’t find him first; bears can feed themselves. The kits only have a few more months to fatten up and grow before they move for the winter.
The light is fading and Karin and I drive to the lookout, where we watch the sun slip behind the rows of pine and spruce. At this time of the year, it only gets dim for a few hours. Below, the river winds away like a black ribbon.
Suemi Chiba enjoys writing short stories and is working on her first novel. Other short stories by her can be found at Seizure and One Page. She thanks you for reading.