Where Neighbor Meant Something


Prompt: “Once a Yup’ik had a fish, but his neighbor had none…”

By: Ela Harrison Gordon

…and because this was a place where the word ‘neighbor’ meant something,
referred to a person of family whose home bordered night upon one’s own,
we can safely surmise that the Yup’ik shared the fish with his neighbor.
Now, neighbor is a reciprocal term, and it’s also inevitable, in that place
and time, that this neighbor who had no fish helped out his neighbor in some
way–wood for his stove, oil for his lamp, help setting nets.
If the Yup’ik of the legend had a neighbor, we can also be sure that
this neighbor was also Yup’ik–if not, then they would have clothed
him as a stranger. Is life easier when your neighbor is of the same
tribe–Sewn in the same tapestry of legend, hewn from the same
coal seam? Or is it just less complicated? Even the Yup’ik,
as fossil remains have shown, had individuals who migrated great
distances because they didn’t fit in at home–didn’t fit in, or simply
didn’t fit, second sons pushed out by primogeniture laws, maverick
geniuses who couldn’t take orders, an heir fallen implacably in love
with a girl considered unsuitable. So was born Syracuse in the
700’s BC, so was born New England, New Zealand, Australia–
so it is that the Yup’ik’s neighbor now may not be a Yup’ik also,
may not know the old stories, may live here only half the year
and transport to another whole reality for the rest. How can you dwell
in a place if you don’t ride the whole gamut of its seasons, if you
transport to a different time zone and climate rather than tracing your
steps intimately, slowly, lovingly over the body of earth that nourishes you,
that you undress for your needs, that you will, in the end, wear
as your body’s shroud?

Still, the song is its action,

The Yup’ik will likely share his fish even if the neighbor is
a stranger and too transient for reliable reciprocity. People are people,
although strangers are still strange–in the legend, Yup’ik is simply
a type for ‘man.’ Perhaps he’ll trade the fish for beer, videogrames–
or perhaps this strange neighbor will refuse the fish: will be
unwilling to join the flesh of a formerly sensate being to her own.
As the trucks and barges slide food over the earth’s surface to this town,
the luxury of choice, the selective luxury of compassion blinds
the stranger to the riches that are here. But it was strange currents
sliding over the sea that brought poison to the fishes’ flesh also,
brought plastic, indestructible detritus, into the waters.
I, fish-eschewing stranger, arrived from a catalogue
of caravanserais, places where the misfits stop for a while–
I honor the land, I wish to share.
But could I ever be a neighbor to a Yup’ik?

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