Ellie pulled her hip waders up over her jeans and ran the straps through her belt. “There you go, Baby,” she said to Nathan, “You wanted to see me in thigh highs.”
She mock-posed and laughed, the sun reflecting off her aviator sunglasses and her thick, black braids lying on her shoulder. Behind her the volcanic mountains of the Aleutian chain soared upward out of the sea, the dark green of their spruce-forested slopes contrasting with the dark blue waters of the Gulf of Alaska.
Nathan put his arms around her and kissed her. “We could go behind those rocks and get these waders off of you.” He laid his hand against her cheek before kissing her again, harder.
Ellie broke the kiss and put a finger on his lips. “Baby, you know we came out here for uutuk.”
“Uutuk is the reason I’m trying to get you behind those rocks,” Nathan said, copying her pronunciation as closely as he could. It sounded like oo-duck.
“Dani will be here soon. My iluq. I told you she was coming last night, remember?”
“Iluq is cousin, right?” He said the word slowly. Ee-luck.
Over Ellie’s shoulder, Nathan saw a skiff rounding the rocky point separating the beach they were on from the village. “Is that her?”
Ellie turned. “Yes.”
“I thought you were kidding about her coming.”
“Why would I? She loves uutuk just like I do.”
“So, you’re thinking the three of us?”
Ellie frowned. “Baby, I’m not understanding you at all. What are you saying?”
“You told me last night you wanted to come out here for sex. When you said your cousin Dani was coming I figured, you know…”
“I never!” Ellie said. “A threesome with my cousin? Where in the world did you get that idea?” She looked at him. “With my cousin? What is wrong with you?”
“You said uutuk. Uutuk is sex, right?”
“Aye-ya!” Ellie threw her head back and laughed. She took a few steps down the black-sand beach, her body shaking with laughter.
Nathan felt his face get hot. He thought to himself, this impossible language.
“Ucuk is sex,” Ellie said. She wiped her eyes. “Ucuk,” Ellie said again. “Not uutuk.”
Nathan heard: Oo-chuck, not oo-duck.
“You must think I’m a total pervert,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Ellie shook her head. “You had me pretty weirded out for a minute there. But, Alutiiq is hard. When I was learning it, my gram told me she wasn’t fluent until she was fourteen. And that was back when more people in the village spoke it. I never got fluent.”
“So, what is uutuk?” Nathan said, “What is it we’re looking for?”
“Sea urchins, Baby. We’re picking sea urchins.” Ellie smiled. “I’m so excited for you to try them.”
“Ah,” Nathan said, remembering the video she had shown him on their first date, her hands deftly plucking the sea urchin from the tide pool and cracking the shell with the blade of a butter knife, her slender fingers scooping the flesh out and popping it into her mouth. “This is what you eat,” she had said in the video. “It tastes like the ocean.”
“I didn’t know what to think, either,” Nathan said, “but you kept saying uutuk, and I was like, okay, well, I’ll roll with it…”
“It’s okay, Baby,” Ellie said. “Just as long as you know it’s not happening.”
“I got that, don’t worry.” Nathan waded a short distance into the surf, trying and failing to keep the waves below the tops of his XtraTufs.
Dani was also wearing hip waders. She cut the motor and pulled the prop out of the water. She had the same thick, black hair and proud cheekbones as Ellie. The skiff glided toward the beach.
“About the thigh highs,” Ellie called. Nathan turned. “I have some fishnets at home. I’ll put them on and we can have some fun.
“Send me a picture first,” Nathan said, “So I know for sure what you’re talking about.” He put a hand on the boat, steadying it.
“Just so you know, it will just be the two of us.” Ellie laughed and pranced back and forth on the beach like a runway model, her braids whipping in the wind.
“What are you two laughing about?” Dani asked, stepping onto the beach.
“Nothing.” Nathan held the skiff until she dropped the sand anchor. The skiff bobbed slightly on the shallow water.
“Well,” Ellie said, giggling, “I was putting on my waders…” She told the story as the three of them walked down the beach to a cluster of rocks and tide pools. The cousins laughed and Nathan felt his face get hot again. He spotted a bald eagle gliding over the trees.
“You know,” Dani said, “one of our Aunties made the same mistake years ago.”
“Who?” Ellie asked. She had perched on a rock and toying with a stray piece of kelp with her boot. The smell of the sea was stronger here by the tide pools.
“Auntie Joann,” Dani said, pulling a pair of rubber-palmed gloves on.
“I never heard this story,” Ellie said.
“You moved to Anchorage, Iluq. Growing up in the big city like you did, you miss out on some stories. And now you bring us this qat’sqaq from down in the Lower 48.”
Nathan looked at Ellie, eyebrows raised. He parroted the word: guh-suck.
“White man,” she translated. “But it’s more like cracker or honky than Caucasian.”
“Somebody told me it comes from the word Cossack,” Dani said. “The Russians were the first white people to come here, so who knows, maybe it does.” Dani shrugged. “Speaking of crackers,” she said to Nathan, “we could put your picture on the box of saltines.”
Nathan grinned. “What about a bag of Wonder bread?”
“Wouldn’t sell,” Dani deadpanned, “the only bread in the village store is Pilot bread.”
Ellie piped up. “Cousin, did you hear they took the Indian off the Land-O-Lakes?”
Dani scoffed. “Oh yeah. Everybody on Facebook says it’s the same old, same old: they got rid of the Indian, but they kept the land.”
“Anyway,” Ellie said, “tell me what happened with Auntie Joann.”
“Auntie Joann was Tlingit,” Dani said, looking at Nathan, “from Southeast Alaska.” Nathan nodded. “She married Uncle Fred. Right after she moved to Perryville, she walked over to Gram’s to ask for uutuk because Uncle Fred wanted some for dinner. All the way walking to Gram’s she’s practicing saying it to herself, but somehow she gets confused and when she gets to Gram’s she asks her for ucuk for dinner.”
Nathan blushed, remembering his own mix-up.
“What did Gram say?” Ellie asked.
“She looked at her and said, ‘Girl, why you got to be so dumb?’”
“She didn’t!” Ellie’s hand was over her mouth. “Gram didn’t say that. She would never.”
“Oh, yes she did. Auntie Joann told me herself.”
“But Gram was the nicest lady ever.”
“To you and me, iluq, because we were small. But she could be spicy with the grown-ups.” Dani looked at Nathan. “So don’t feel bad, qat’sqaq. But don’t be grabbing my ass, either.”
Dani stood up and started scanning the tide pools for sea urchins. Ellie and Nathan fanned out on either side of her, moving slowly, feeling under rocks, picking through the seaweed looking for sea urchins. The two cousins, with their hip waders, could kneel down and reach further under the rocks.
Ellie yelped when a rock rolled over, twisting her ankle.
“Poor,” Nathan said. “You okay?”
“Fine, Baby. Thank you,” Ellie said.
“‘Poor’” Dani repeated, smiling. “I see you’ve taught him a lot already. Does he know aye-ya?”
“Aye-ya, poor, uutuk, ucuk,” Ellie said. “Now qat’sqaq.” She looked at Nathan. “What else do you know?”
“Unuq,” Nathan said. “That’s poop, right?”
“Probably the first word little kids learn,” Dani said. “All their aunties asking them, ‘Did you unuq today?’”
Dani straightened and stretched her back. “Sounds like you have the basics down already. Except for alaciq.”
“What does alaciq mean?” Nathan asked, trying the word out. Alah-juck.
“Frybread,” Ellie said.
Nathan and Ellie both laughed.
“What’s so funny about frybread?” Dani asked, looking back and forth between the two of them. “Though with you two, I’m not sure I want to know.”
“It’s one of her nicknames,” Nathan said. “I call her Frybread.”
Dani laughed. “That’s funny. But did she tell you her sister Kimberly is better at making frybread than she is?”
“She did,” Nathan said. “Colleen makes the best fish pie, and you take the best pictures in the village.”
“It’s true,” said Dani. “And, I make the best akutaq.”
“I don’t know about that,” Ellie said.
Dani wrinkled her nose. “Making akutaq with store-bought berries.” She asked Nathan, “What’s your nickname?”
Custer,” Ellie said.
“I call him Custer,” Ellie said.
“Poor!” Dani laughed.
“There’s this meme from Thunder Heart,” Ellie said. “Graham Greene and Val Kilmer are looking at each other and it says — ”
“Fuck you, Frybread!” Nathan interrupted.
“Fuck you, Custer!” Ellie finished. The two of them laughed.
“Aye-ya,” Dani said, “you city people are too spicy for me. Let’s get back to picking uutuk before the tide comes in and Paleface here tricks us into signing a treaty so he can steal our land.”
“No worries,” Nathan said, “I come in peace.”
Dani scoffed. “Qat’sqaq alwayssay that when they show up somewhere for the first time.”
This story was co-written by Stephanie Husted, who is of Alutiiq and Irish descent and is from Perryville, Alaska, on which the geography in this story is loosely based. She now lives in Anchorage. The Alutiiq Museum, located in Kodiak, Alaska, maintains an electronic Alutiiq Language Archive and a Word of the Week Archive. Thank you to Amy Steffian and Dehrich Schmidt-Chya for help spelling Alutiiq words. There are no affiliate links in this story.