"Tell me about the time you sat on a pitchfork."
My three-year-old charge, Hadley Pack, is always fascinated by the adventures I and my four siblings had on the very property she calls home, that used to be my grandparents' house. It's a small, story-and-a-half house that my father helped build, with a view of the state dock and most of the thirty or so houses that make up Meyers Chuck, Alaska.
I show Hadley and her year-and-a-half sister Emma the infamous spot where, at the tender age of seven, I sat on a pitchfork.
"How could you sit on a pitchfork?" Hadley asks, big gray eyes full of curiosity, mischief, and skepticism.
"It was easier than you might think," I recall. "My uncle Lance, who was a teenager at the time, found a nasty, rusty pitchfork head. My grandma told him to get rid of it immediately. He buried it behind the house and somehow the tines--the points--wound up sticking straight up. While we were tilling the dirt for a garden the pitchfork head was exposed but no one noticed because it was the same color as the dirt."
Hadley hangs on my words, gripped by the coming horror. Emma, perched on my hip, is more interested in stuffing the end of my braid in my mouth, with a look of scientific curiosity, than in hearing the story.
"Then what happened?" Hadley presses.
"I was pretty tired from gardening. Hauling salal brush and salmon berry bushes away and finding all the rocks and stacking them in a corner. So I decided..." I draw it out. "To...sit...down."
Hadley doesn't speak, her eyes fixed on my face.
"I looked around for a good spot." I push the braid out of my mouth. "Should I sit on that tree root over there? No. That would be too uncomfortable."
Hadley giggles under her breath.
"That nice patch of dirt looks soft and inviting. I think I'll sit...right...OUCH!"
Hadley jumps, then explodes into infectious convulsions of mirth. For a moment Emma is fascinated by Hadley's borderline control of her laughter. She smiles, then turns back to her scientific studies involving my hair and mouth.
Hadley insists on the rest of it. The sorry account of a little blonde girl like herself, dragging herself into the house, pitchfork protruding, sobbing for her mommy. How the next door neighbor Cassie (who used to give me cookies and now gives them Hadley and her sister), volunteered to take me on a floatplane to Ketchikan to see the doctor, since she already had a flight scheduled.
Hadley's satisfaction with the conclusion of the story, I suspect, has as much to do with her relief that someone had disposed of the submerged threat before she came along, as in her pleasure at her favorite story being told again.
We decide to adventure farther afield and traipse down the wooden walkway that leads to the new post office. Beyond that is the beach where I used to play as a child, where my parents' floathouse used to be, before it was towed to several different locations.
We scamper over the rocks, Hadley insisting that she is Sleeping Beauty to my Prince Charming (regardless of her sister still on my hip).
I breathe in the pungent tidal scents of seaweed and mud, the angle of the light bringing back a childhood full of sunshine and a village that was at one time full to capacity with fishing boats; when the laughter and shrieks of children floated across the water.
I remember climbing over these very rocks, immersed in the wonders of Alaska, knowing, at the age of six, that I had found where I wanted to live for the rest of my life.
I try to imagine that little girl picturing herself grown up, sharing her first discoveries with two other little girls. I often get this feeling, ever since I was hired to be a wilderness nanny for Dan and Kerri Pack two years ago, when Kerri was pregnant with Emma and she and Dan were operating a kayak lodge out of their home.
The cabin Hadley and I shared, away from the kayak guests, had no in-door plumbing, wasn't wired for electricity, and was, in short, exactly the environment I'd grown up in.
Kerri had warned me that Hadley didn't like brushing her teeth, which I found to be true. So I took her to the front door of the cabin and sat her on the top step. I put bubblegum flavored pink toothpaste on her tiny brush and poured water from a thermos on it.
It was dusk, with late rays of sunshine fingering its way through the thick, dark trees. We could hear generators rumbling across the bay, and a seiner dropping its anchor. Night birds crooned in the evening and squirrels chattered.
"Did you see that baby squirrel?" I asked Hadley. "It's come to find out how to brush its teeth. Now, if you show it how it's done, it can go back and show its mother how good it is at brushing its teeth."
Hadley eagerly peered into the woods to catch a glimpse of the squirrel. She heard one chatter and excitedly applied the brush to her teeth, working up a mouth full of pink foam.
The squirrels, as it turned out, also needed to learn how to brush their hair, eat all their food, and go to bed right after their bedtime story.
Now, with an older and wiser Hadley and a tag-along little sister, we have more exciting adventures, leaving the squirrels far behind. These days we pack a lunch and head into the rain forest that covers the island Hadley's home is on. We head past the wooden sign branded "Hadley's Pathway" and emerge onto a beach that gives us a panoramic view of a white-capping Clarence Strait, the only access, besides air, to Meyers Chuck. Waves explode against the protective arm of rocks that shields the Chuck, and salt spindrift is flung a dozen feet into the air.
Every step I cover is full of memories, of a childhood I'd thought forever gone in the past, but which is brought closer every day I spend exploring Alaska anew through the eyes of Hadley and Emma. Every time Hadley asks me to recall my childhood, I feel as if she is giving me a gift, something precious I once had but had somehow allowed to drift away from me without knowing it.
We duck into a gravel alcove, sheltering near a pile of weathered drift logs. To our right is an eagle tree, with a nest in it. For a moment we are hypnotised by the gray and white fury of the pounding surf. Even Emma remains still and silent, awed by the elements. Hadley huddles close to me, shivering at the bite of the wind.
Almost immeditately, though, she recalls our purpose in braving this exposed shore.
"We were in a boat, remember," she says.
"That's right," I duly remember. "We were in a terrible shipwreck and just barely managed to make it ashore before the boat broke up. All we have left is this bag of food."
"We better eat it," Hadley says practically.
We settle on the beach and spread out the meal. Emma stays on my lap, trying to be fair about how much she eats and how much she smears onto me. Hadley chews on a sandwich, her eyes going far away.
It is just the three of us left in the world, everything and everyone forgotten. We could be living in any time, castaways from what is happening elsewhere on the planet. I have been granted this break away from the usual concerns and involvements of an adult in today's world. For a moment I feel the presence of a little girl in blonde pig-tails soaking in the rawness and freshness of Alaska. Almost, I am her again.
Hadley stirs, turning her eyes away from the water to look at me, searching my face. "Tell me about when you were a little girl," she says.
Note: A version of this story was originally published in ALASKA Magazine, May/June 2004.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)