I Am Aani Littlecrab by Julia Jenkins
2020 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist
Julia Jenkins has made the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist for I Am Aani Littlecrab.
She will receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and her story is published below.
The winner will be announced on April 22, 2020. They will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
You can read I Am Aani Littlecrab below.
This day I was to live or die. The sun slipped lower to the earth, tracking to set well to north, leaving a streak of light as it travelled beneath the horizon for just a few hours to later rise in morning glory. Light never left the sky, and would not for many days. From sun's circle traced and shadows cast, we, the Tlingit People of the Tides, knew Earth was round, and never thought it otherwise.
On the beach, remnants of Grandfather's mid-summer feast for his village — salmon bits sticking to the cedar planks still shoved into the sand around the fire-pit; baskets of empty clam shells to be reclaimed by the clam garden. Abalone and oyster shells, the greens of wild asparagus and nettle; the roasted bones of deer and bear with marrow scooped out; stone jars half-empty of oolichan oil in which we had dipped our salmon morsels.
We oiled hair, arms and legs. We might take a dip in the cool water then with our families trek past the boat sheds beside the creek and up the ravine to the longhouses on the high bluff. Centuries before the wave washed away our village and our lives from the shore. The Grandfathers thought better to build home on high ground where in bunks on cedar mats, nestled in mountain goat wool shawls, and snuggling a favourite puppy, we safely slept.
Dogs were well fed that night, and began to seek beds above high water mark, between logs, on higher dry sandy banks beneath fern and salal. Among them my Snowflake, white and furry, heavy with litter about to be born, seeking space away from the pack of knee high black and brown Tahltan bear dogs we used for hunting. No, they did not kill the bear; just find, annoy with high-pitched voice and fearless teasing to circle and herd the bear to hunters waiting with spears in hand. Snowflake's low moody rumbling from deep within her told the pack to stay clear.
The older cousins, tall with hint of powerful muscle to come, pulled their canoes from the water; it had been a good paddle, good fun racing between the outer island and village shore. They stopped, turned and looked at the water and the sunset beyond, and breathed deep the salty evening air, cooling lungs that had been on fire during a hard pull. Tomorrow another race, another layer of paddling muscle. Some were becoming champion pullers with honour ahead of them.
. They stood, swaying gently, singing old songs in remembrance of feasts gone by, of struggles and loss, of triumphs and gain; of births, lives, marriages and deaths.
We younger ones were playing a happy game of tag around the mothers, grandmothers, aunties — wise women who knew everything. Grandfather had gathered generations of moiety, the many women, his brothers the great-uncles, his sons my uncles, cousins of our village and our relatives from villages close by. They stood, swaying gently, singing old songs in remembrance of feasts gone by, of struggles and loss, of triumphs and gain; of births, lives, marriages and deaths.
We started to race, my cousins and I, from the gathering around the fire pit to the edge of the creek spilling into the ocean and back. My five summers of not growing much made me no match for the long and strong legs of others, but I loved to run even as last in the bunch. My long black oolichan-oiled hair streamed behind me. The eight or 10 bigger, taller ones ahead parted either side to run around the fire and the families; I, Aani, ran straight into the pit.
All around hands reach into the fire to pull me out. I was ablaze; my oiled hair exploded in flame. Fire ran up my legs and arms as I half-rolled on the coals. I screamed and felt fire in my mouth. Then and all was silent; all was black.
The hands of aunts and uncles drew me from hot coals, rolled me in the sand, picked me up, ran with me into the ocean, their own heads of oiled hair on fire. They did not scream, I am told, but plunged in the water with me as my body went rigid, then limp as though dead.
Grandmother now tells my story:
In the water you, Aani, burned and blistered, floated motionless in our arms. Someone began the mourning song. We waited for your last breath, but no last rattle came. Your life did not leave you. We did not leave you. We held you in the water until dawn's light. Your aunts my older daughters, their children your cousins, eased their burns in the soft salt waves of healing with you. Your dolphin friends and the otter swam back and forth offshore, worried for you. Tahltans came, pacing in silence; even pregnant Snowflake who knew your life might leave and in distress whelped on the beach. Kharis, our bright evening star, wept silver tears.
We took turns three days and nights, humming healing songs, dripping fresh water and aspen bark tea between your lips. We heard you moan, and knew you, Aani, were aware of light, life and pain. The women-who-know-everything brought herbs and salal berries, crushing them into a salve with oolichan oil, the oil that had taken most of you away. They covered your burns, not in healing hope for your future, but to ease pain until you were no more. We made you drunk to help you bear the unbearable. But pain persisted, and would for many seasons. Some of this you remember; but the early days, by Creator's mercy, you don't.
Days passed, your life persisted along with pain. We slid deer skins beneath you and lifted you from the water and laid you on cedar mats on the sand. Your legs were black and charred to the bone up to the knees. A little crab was nibbling at your toes. We took you to the tidal pools where only the highest tide could reach. We made a litter from cedar nets and deerskin, and lowered you into the pool. The little crab in the pool came to take a look and a nibble on the char. Their friends came, too. We started singing to them: Little crab, little crab, this is our little sister, come nibble away the char, leave her flesh clean and bright and new.
They carried on, the little crab, and gently cleaned away death from toes to knees, down to the bone. They cleaned away the char on your right hand and arm and shoulder, your neck and the burned side of your face down to pink flesh. They cleaned your chest and neck and the one side of your face. They cleaned away the dead ear and the dead eye, the dead scalp on one side of your head where hair would never grow again. They left the side where the hair was scorched off, but the scalp was not charred. The little crab, Creator's cleaners of ocean and earth, know just what to do, to nibble just so far.
After 40 days, Grandfather gently pulled away your feet. He cried. He sang the crying-for-something- lost-never-to- return song. The crab kept up their work. They came to your knees, cleaned to just above and stopped. They said: We are done, and left.
The women- who-know- everything looked at the situation, and sang for help and guidance. They nodded to Grandfather in whose hands rested the deer-horn handle set with Edziza black glass, the edge napped to finest blade. Grandfather removed the no-foot-anymore leg bones; the knee-caps fell into his hands. Sea water and crab had done their work. Grandfather trimmed the skin left on the thigh bones so it flapped over the pink wound. The women-who-know-everything sluiced the cavity with healing fluids. They sewed the skin as you would a sealskin bag. They packed the stump with healing herbs and slipped deer-skin cups over your stumps. They bound the stump to keep the flesh growing into a pad. We brought Snowflake with her five playful pups, new life to keep you company and lick your face.
Grandmother's Song of Aani
We raised you on dog milk, Aani
No nursing women in our small village.
Your mother, my last born, you her first born.
Who would die, new life or mother,
Both to live, our desperate prayer.
That night of tears and trembling
You fought to live, tiny though you were
Tiny as puppies in the corner
Suckling the Tahltan bear dog mother.
Dog-mother made room for you, you grew
Like your puppy sisters and brothers.
Snowflake your sister never left your side
Then nor since fire took half of you.
Aani, you have no voice to speak,
But you cry, whisper, laugh, sing, shriek.
Now you are No-Foot;
But you are Stump-Walker.
I've seen you jump and crab-walk.
To see, one eye; to hear, one ear.
You are No-Breast,
But your heart beats beneath.
And, mercy, you have half your hair!
Half of you is gone, but half of you is here.
I am Aani, from here I tell my story. Aani, my Tlingit name, means "the land." Until this year's feast, from mid-summer to mid-summer, I did not think. I could not speak, I did not wail, I did not sing. I did not laugh or play. I simply bore the pain without sound, as I did not know what sound to make. Grandfather's feast was not much fun this time with memories of what took place last year. So the next day, I became well.
When I became well, I began to cry. I, Aani Littlecrab, cried a full moon.
When I became well, I began to cry. I, Aani Littlecrab, cried a full moon. Grandmother took me foraging for mushrooms in the forest, and berry picking in the meadows above the village. I cried, I wailed high to the misty cedar tops, stumping along behind her on the path. Snowflake disdained me, preferring to play hide and seek with her puppies in tall bracken. One white, like her mother, I named Lily after the white three-petal forest flower. I cried as pups frolicked and explored, tumbled and yelped. I cried as I picked and ate blueberries. I cried as I saw blue jays stripping a nut tree before I could get some.
"Do your stumps hurt?" Grandmother asked kindly. I shook my head. "Are you tired?" I shook my head. 'Why don't you walk on your hands?" This appealed.
I flipped over and walked on my hands. Grandmother smiled. I could not cry upside down. I smiled. Upside down I was taller. I composed a walk-on-my-hands song in my head.
Shadows lengthened as we came home to the longhouse. Grandmother's bags of woven cedar slung across her back were full of bounty, herbs and one or two tired puppies. Two favourite cousins who used to tease me for my littleness and provoked me to sass leaned on the door posts. They had spent their day in the boat sheds where long sea-going cedar dugout canoes were taking shape. From Tlingit master canoe builders and carvers the cousins were learning tools and strokes, strength and grain of cedar, how to bend and shape wood with hot stones and steam.
Each cousin held a polished maple stick carved with tiny crab people; sticks with deer-skin wrappings. I, Aani Littlecrab, walked on my hands to them. They caught me and flipped me right end up. I shrieked. They laughed. They put deerskin gloves with open finger tips on the good hand and the not-so-good hand. They showed me how to hold the sticks to bear my small body.
The thick end rested on the ground. The other end came to my elbow. The deerskin wrapping fit around my forearm, holding it into the cupped wood. A sturdy branch of the stick, deer-skin wrapped and cushioned, pointed to the front where they placed my gloved hands.
I shrieked "Walking sticks!" I laughed and sang. I did not cry. Running sticks, poking sticks, pointing sticks, flying sticks. My sticks.
My cousins began to run away from me and I chased them, running on my sticks as would rabbit or deer chased by mountain cat. I fell. I got up. I shrieked. I chased the pups and Snowflake who neatly dodged me. I slung a cedar bag across my back and tossed in two puppies who loved the ride. Snowflake ran circles around me, determined to trip me up.
I took my sticks to supper. I sang my now famous Song-of-Delight and the I-Love-You-Carver-Cousins-but-I-Won't-Forget-to-Sass-You, with dance, made up on the spot.
I took my maple sticks carved with little crab people to the beach to show the dolphins and otter and the beloved char-chewer little crabs. I waved my sticks carved with little crabs to kindly Kharis, the evening star. Now Kharis wept silver tears of joy for me.
I thanked my beloved carver cousins with shrieks, and the Creator with whispers. I raced with Grandfather. He let me win, I knew that. I kissed Grandmother. I took Snowflake, Lily and all the pups and my sticks to bed, wrapped beside me in my blanket. I held them fast. I am Aani Littlecrab. I am here.
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Julia Jenkins is a Vancouver Islander, growing up with oceans, forests, people and animals that inspire stories. She credits her schooling at Qualicum and the University of Victoria with shaping her creative writing. She has three sons, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. She learned to love "the story" listening to her Gram read to her from infancy, poetry, stories and Gram's own penned children's fables. Now semi-retired, after spending much of her life in business, she is rediscovering poetry and stories hidden in a drawer.
The winner of the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.