Eliana Ramage


Eliana Ramage holds a BA and MA in creative writing from Dartmouth College and Bar-Ilan University, respectively. A proud Cherokee Nation citizen, she is at work on a collection of linked stories concerning indigenous girls and women. She recently won the Grazia Deledda International Literary Prize, and her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in the Beloit Fiction Journal, the For Books’ Sake YA anthology, and Four Chambers.

Mr. Longley’s Paper Suns

Mr. Longley has black hair and green eyes and he grew up in the contiguous United States. I learned that word through context in a chapter book last week—contiguous means the lower 48 and context means never having to use a dictionary.

Mr. Longley won’t be here forever. Just two years, to teach at-risk Alaska Native youth. At-risk means being on the free-lunch list in the school cafeteria. I wait for Kevin to get his food and go sit down, because if I don’t then I’ll whisper to the lunch lady “Jess Ticasuk” and then Kevin will say, “Hey Jess, you didn’t pay!”

Mr. Longley says he’s Indian, but we had expected someone darker, longer haired, colorfully feathered. We had expected someone more exotic than Mr. Longley with his puffy sweater and skinny red tie peeking out the top. But Mr. Longley says there are more than 500 tribes, and us Inupiat are only one of them. Mr. Longley says we should use encyclopedias to read about the diversity of Indian Country. Dad says I don’t need an encyclopedia set for my tenth birthday present, because anything I want to know I can just ask Mr. Longley. But Mr. Longley won’t be here forever.

Mr. Longley gets grouchy on November 18th, and I worry he might stay that way through January. November is when the sun goes down and doesn’t come back, so he takes up a whole math class making us cut little suns out of yellow construction paper. We tape them all over the storm windows, triangle rays overlapping, criss-crossing, blocking out the blackness behind the cold glass. Mr. Longley slumps at his desk and grumps about the weather. He says we should’ve had fall, when you get to jump in leaf piles and we should’ve had summer, when you lie on the beach till your skin falls off. I don’t think Mr. Longley wears enough sunscreen in the contiguous United States. I keep cutting out suns and I think about rubbing sunscreen on Mr. Longley’s back. I keep cutting out suns and I think about me and Mr. Longley jumping in leaf piles.

Mr. Longley is a good man, and I know it because of the way he treats me when I finish last in the class on the math quiz and most of my answers are wrong and I cry a little bit until Kevin whispers real fast are-you-okay and I know I’ve hit rock-bottom. I want to go out in the snow and cry as loud as Dad did when Mom took the baby and forgot us at home. I want to leave, too. I want to move to a town in Florida with no Kevins and no multiplication. I want Mr. Longley to come with me and tape paper snowflakes on the kitchen windows if I ever miss home.

Mr. Longley says it’s time for lunch. He gives me a nod that it’s my turn to stay and do work. Me and Mr. Longley are alone.

Mr. Longley takes out his tomato cheese white-bread sandwich, which must have been very expensive because Dad says all three of those are on the list of foods that take five plane rides to get here. I brought my own lunch because it’s my birthday, but Dad says outsiders are fussy about whaling. I’m embarrassed to eat muktuk in front of Mr. Longley.

Mr. Longley must know that’s what I’m thinking, because he asks me about the food here and he says he’s only been here a few months but he is already addicted to seal and beluga whale. Sometimes you can use “addicted” like that and it doesn’t mean like Mom was, it just means hyperbole, which means not telling the truth. I unzip my purple lunch box and offer him some of my muktuk and he smiles.

Mr. Longley and I are sitting across from each other, smiling, and it’s the happiest I’ve been since payday when Dad brought home candy that took five flights from the contiguous United States. Mr. Longley has a dimple and he says he likes beluga whale and it’s the happiest I’ve been since Dad said he’d buy me a ticket to college in America if I do really good in school. If I do really well.

Mr. Longley asks me multiplication tables, the easy 10s and 11s, and then some hard ones. He asks me to pass a napkin and then right quick when my hands are still in the air he whips out another hard one. I can’t count off my fingers so I give each one a little twitch, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63. I tell him 63.

Mr. Longley doesn’t say anything about me counting on my fingers. He doesn’t say that I’m in fourth grade already, that I’ll never make it to college if I can’t keep up with the simple times-tables. He doesn’t say that I’m getting dumber, that I’m trash, that I should get less fat because one of these days I’ll have to be a whore just to feed my bastards. I don’t know what all of that means, but Kevin seemed like he meant it and the dictionary definition seemed like what Dad used to scream at Mom when I was door-closed, under the blankets, under the bed, don’t say a word.

Mr. Longley doesn’t know any of that. Mr. Longley thinks I am perfect, with a little bit of a math problem. Mr. Longley smiles with his dimple and he asks what I’m reading. I tell him War and Peace because that’s the smartest book I know. He says he’s reading Harry Potter, but I don’t have to worry about spoilers because he’s read it so many times before. So I don’t worry about spoilers, and me and Mr. Longley talk about all our favorite parts. He says he doesn’t like how Harry had an attitude about Remedial Potions, because the book made it sound like it was so bad just to need some extra help.

Mr. Longley offers me some extra help. He gives me for free a times-table book with lots of activities and puzzles you can only figure out with math. He asks me if I have a long walk to the bus in the mornings and I tell him yes, I live by the old research lab and it’s only connected to the rest of Barrow by a little dirt road. I don’t tell him that I get cold and alone and afraid of the noises the wind makes.

Mr. Longley says I should do my times-tables while I walk to and from the bus each day. He says if I say them aloud to myself just twenty minutes a day then I’ll get faster and better and he really thinks I can be one of the best in the class because he knows I’m smart.

Mr. Longley knows I’m smart, and I know that I will love him simply, quietly, always. I know that I should enjoy this moment, when he eats a piece of my beluga whale and finishes off his chocolate milk and says I have an impressive vocabulary. I know that behind the sun-windows it’s forever twilight, dark till January, and on my walk home Kevin will hit me with snowballs and call my mother names. I know there will be more Kevins, more snowballs in the face and times-tables and bastards and whores. I know there will be nights that last all day and then days that last all night and just me, alone, in bed with a book, with a flashlight.

I was nervous, writing this. I knew Mr. Longley was a good man. But I also knew that this girl was growing up, and that the way she felt about him wouldn't be safe or comfortable. She seemed both too innocent and too daring. When she turned out to be a reader, I understood. Yes, she loved her teacher. But suddenly that wasn't the point.