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Jewel

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Where the forests nose into the lake, where the salmon spawn each year; where the camps were, that’s where you’ll find Blind Siku’s place.

Siku is not here, nor are his bones. But stand on the shore, look through the mist to the hills on the other side, and you’ll feel his presence, as sure as if he was behind you.

It was my late grandfather, Billy Thomson, who first brought me to this spot, a full hour’s hike from the nearest town. Snow and ice, not to say Grandpa Billy’s frailty, made the journey hard. But the old man was insistent; he wanted to share his story in its proper place.

As he limped along, Billy chuckled, recalling the rashness of his youth. When he was sixteen, he told me, he’d read of great gold discoveries in the north, and had instantly resolved to come here. But it took years to gather funds for travel and food and to make passage through Skagway and the White Pass towards the gold fields. By then, the craze was over: most gold seekers were passing him in the other direction, laughing at their folly. Billy’s stubbornness pushed him on until he was finally halted by the snow. That winter, he holed up in a desolate settlement, its population withered to a handful of men sheltering in the twilight of a saloon bar.

Among them were five prospectors, a mix of Irish and Mexican; not a one below forty years old. They spent the short days, ravenous as wolves, chewing tobacco and card-playing and rubbing their jaws, cursing their own doggedness and the seasons.

Aside from Billy and the bartender, the only other man there was a native they called Blind Siku.

Siku sat at one end of the bar, in a sealskin hat. His gray hair was braided in a rope down his back. He was not wholly blind; only one eye was useless, as pale as a snowball. He kept away from the prospectors, who were wary in their turn and damned him when emboldened by drink.

Billy remembered one pigeon-eyed soak, name of Michael, who staggered towards Siku just to say he oughter disappear with the rest of his people.

Siku reflected a moment, before turning his white eye on Michael. “Sir,” he said, “You wish to see finest jewel?”

Michael, who hadn’t considered that Siku understood English, spat at the floorboards and tugged his moustache. Billy heard him say, “What’s the trick?”

Siku repeated his words. Michael glanced at his companions’ table. His pigeon eyes shrank to greedy slits. In a low voice, he said, “Where?”

Without another word, Siku slipped off his stool and opened the saloon’s back door. Walking out into swirling snow, he beckoned Michael, who followed.

The other men barely noticed their absence, even after several hours had passed. But Billy’s interest grew. He asked the bartender about the native.

“Blind Siku? Story goes he had a wife, by every account beautiful. Siku treasured her.” The bartender nodded over his shoulder. “They lived in the native camp by the lake. Course, camp’s long gone: Government drove the natives to a reservation up north. Anyway, night before they were to leave, gang of gold-diggers roused the camp to search out Siku’s wife, for their pleasure, you understand. Siku rushed to fight the men off, but a blow struck him senseless – accounting for his eye.”

The bartender took Billy’s empty glass and began cleaning it. “Found her at first light, floating bang in the middle of the lake. No-one was ever charged, so Siku stayed. Said he couldn’t leave the restless spirit of his wife, or somesuch.”

At that moment, Siku returned. The bartender placed a tot of whisky before him then came back to Billy. “I fear he’s a jinx.”

Even as he spoke, a couple of prospectors approached Siku and shoved him off his stool. Billy didn’t hear what Siku said in return, but it had a pacific effect. The men helped him up, scratched their beards and talked awhile. Finally, they patted Siku’s shoulder and followed him out the back.

Next morning, when Siku resumed his place at the bar, there was no sign of those two men either. The remaining pair of prospectors drew their knives, demanding to know what Siku had done with their companions.

Siku shrugged. “I showed them jewel.”

“A jewel?” The prospectors’ foreheads creased. One whistled. “Why, the double-crossing sons –”

“I show you also.”

“Say – the others didn’t take it?”

Siku shook his head. “Jewel in lake. They are with it now.”

The men rushed to grab their jackets and were outside within a minute. “Show us,” they demanded, “before it’s too late.”

When Billy pushed open the saloon doors the next day, he found the place as he had feared: empty, save for Blind Siku and the bartender. Billy perched on a barstool, but had no thirst.

Eventually, Siku came to him and said, “You see jewel too.”

The bartender shot Billy a look, but something – Billy was never sure what – made him nod toward Siku. Like the others, he donned his oil-cloth and went out, following Siku’s footprints into the forest. When they reached the lake shore, a kayak lay before them. Siku motioned for Billy to get in.

Billy froze. He looked into Siku’s good eye, then his bad eye, and back again. Billy and Siku watched each other for a whole minute until an understanding seemed to pass between them. Siku’s shoulders dropped.

Siku said, “You are a child.” He turned, pushed his kayak into the water and climbed in. He looked back. “A wife waits for you. As one awaits me.”

Siku paddled out, delicately adjusting his course until he reached a particular spot. And something happened that forever unsettled Billy: he saw Blind Siku, then did not see him; saw his kayak afloat, then no longer afloat. In their place, a thin, glinting light, before even that faded, like everything, into the mist.

Published 
Written by Pnin
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