All young ones were curious about the upworld. Everyone knew this. Forbidding them to go was foolish. This was also known.
The first time I went up I was very young. I believe it was not long after my fiftieth moon. The light of that world dazzled my eyes. The moon shone on me, filling me with the power of the upworld, changing my body to a slender, fragile, beautiful thing. I had to shake my head free of the fur covering my eyes, making rivulets of the salt water flow like tears into my eyes and down my cheeks.
Then I breathed.
The air was sharper than ice and more lovely. The stars pierced the night sky with the intensity of teeth; gripping tight and never letting go. From that day on I was caught in its jaws. I went down to my cave to sleep, eyes full of the moon and the stars and the faraway lights of the Alutiiq. It was they that caught my heart as well. But it took many more moons before I knew that.
Many times my father brought me up, his eyes sparking in the reflections of mine. He was like me when he was younger. He never said it. He rarely spoke above the surface but I will never forget his voice. It was like the roll of the tide, deep and powerful. He knew few words of the Alutiiq, but those he knew he taught to me. Myriads more I learned myself. I collected them like some collect whale teeth. Many times I would say them silently again and again before coming up to practice forming them with my newfound pale lips and tongue.
I knew thousands of words. Often times I would go with the other boys to play in the surface. Sometimes, full of daring and mischief, we would go to the fishing boats and shove, making it rock and the fishermen curse. Then we would swim away fast, squeaking with mirth.
Sometimes I would go alone, quietly swimming alongside a boat and just listen. I would hear them talk and nearly laugh in victory when I could tell what they were saying. I loved them.
Of course I knew the danger. We all did. Old tales passed down from grandmothers warned of the cunning of the Alutiiq and their treachery. They were not to be trusted, not to be spoken to, not to be acknowledged back. The orcas and other beasts were our enemies. Of course the Alutiiq tried to kill and eat us as well, but we must kill to eat. The grandmothers told us that the Alutiiq would capture as well as kill. And not for food but as caged workers with no will. And so we were not to go to their caves no matter the temptation. If discovered, one could be put to death for endangering the others and fed to the whales.
And yet all young ones were curious about the upworld. So It was decreed that they must be taken to it if they expressed desire, under strict supervision until the urges were cleansed from their young minds and they returned to life below. And yet some did not. It was secret that any walked the surface of the upworld. But some had. It was forbidden to speak of such things in the presence of pups. But pups are inquisitive, and find out what they should not know.
It was not until I was full grown that I took my first real step to the upworld. Before I had taken but scurrying steps filled with fear into that world. Always in the darkest night when I knew the Alutiiq would be asleep. By then I could speak their language, though not as well as I would like. They had what was called piiwaq, a kind of what I later learned was alcohol. This magic could loose the tongue and at high concentration make the body lose function. This piiwaq was sour, and writhed on the tongue. Many times I tasted it, though it improved very little with more tasting.
When I met the first Alutiiq I found I could not speak not as well as I thought. He thought I was one promyshlenniki and a foe. I made known that I meant no harm, and was merely looking for a place to sleep. He acquiesced, and led me to a sleeping place unlike ours, where I stayed with him.
We began a partnership of sorts. He was an adept fisherman, and yet I had things I could teach him. In return, he told me the stories his people carried, and I listened with interest. He told me how the world was made, different than now my people said. He told stories of the sun marrying maidens and the moon’s wives. Men and women who turn to dogs and take the shape of bears. Children born of drops of blood. Always I looked forward to these meetings, though I knew I would be killed if the grandmother’s found out. I suspected his people would be furious that he was being friendly to a promyshlenniki. We did not speak of this. By mutual agreement we did not speak of things. He spoke of his world above, and mine beneath, and yet my words were always under a wave of darkness; I suspect his were as well. I never found where he lived. We always met near the water. Neither of us questioned where the other came from.
He told me of Raven, who brought light to the Alutiiq. This I did not disbelieve. The grandmothers say a whale vomited it up, but a Raven has wings of night, and doubtless those are better to hang the morning light upon the sky.
One day he brought me beer of the promyshlenniki. I had to pretend I was already familiar to the drink. It was better than the piiwaq, but much more powerful. I nearly lost myself to it the first time I drank, but my friend laughed in good humor.
One thing I would never hunt with him were the seals. This surprised him, since all promyshlenniki hunt seals. He was angry, thinking I was keeping them all to myself and my people. He was right in a way. Though I knew what I was doing might have been wrong, I knew if I let any of my people die I deserved a thousand deaths. For days we did not meet or speak. Yet I continually left offerings at our meeting spot, which he always accepted after he thought I left. I watched from the water as he took them to his secret home. Perhaps he had a wife. Perhaps he had pups to feed. I did not know. He told me the name of his land, Qikertak, and of the people who lived there. But his family was secret. This I accepted. Never did he say, but I think he feared me. The grandmothers told us that even among the Alutiiq there was fighting and killing of brothers. Likely the promyshlenniki had killed some kind of his.
We came together for years. In time he knew all I had to tell him. Out partnership should have ended. But I loved him, and he loved me. We knew our meeting was dangerous for both of us, yet neither of us had the will to stop. He spoke, I listened. He told me of the storytellers of his people, and I wished to become like them. I savored every morsel, devoured every tale like a the delicate parts of a fish.
One day he did not come. For many days I waited. One day I was met by another Alutiiq. He had hatred in his eyes and cursed me. I fled into the deep, letting the waves cover my tears. And yet I held life in my heart and memory.
The stories I had gathered, thousands of tales, gathered around me. These I would keep in my memory forever.