They cook you till you're done in Charlie Nelson's steam bath. They take your untested city flesh and steam it mottled red. They pour water on the sizzling rocks until you jump to your feet and burst out the door.
"One good one," Charlie Nelson says as he picks up the ladle, a tin can crimped onto a long, wooden handle. He is usually a kind old gentleman. It is always good to be the one with your hand on the ladle.
Steam crowds into the corners and crawls down the walls. On the bench next to the roaring wood stove, four men bow their heads. They press wet cloths to their faces. Breath comes in short gasps.
In the Yupik Eskimo villages of western Alaska, the maqi (pronounced mock-HEY) or steam bath is the traditional way to get clean where there is no running water.
The maqi is a rite of initiation. It is a beer with the gang. It is a chance to slow down and put the world in perspective.
Now that satellite television has cut back on the village custom of neighborly visiting, the nightly steam has become the principal social hour.
Koliganek is a tradition-minded village of fewer than 200 people on the Nushagak River. In fall, split salmon dry on racks by the water, and moose are butchered on kitchen floors. In every house, a visitor is offered heaping purple mounds of akutaq, Eskimo ice cream made of blueberries and salmonberries in sugar and shortening.
Koliganek is one of the last communities in Alaska to have a single telephone. It's in Charlie Nelson's store. Householders still call each other on citizen-band (CB) radios.
The maqi survives here as a nightly ritual. Nelson can remember only two nights all year that he failed to make steam. Evening is steam time up and down the Nushagak. Men and women steam separately, the men first.
Nelson pulls his navy blue watch cap over his white hair and goes out before dinner to start a fire in the barrel stove. He was born 76 years ago on the shores of Bristol Bay. His mother was Eskimo, his father a Swedish fisherman who packed him off to a Methodist foster home in the Aleutian Islands.
He returned to Bristol Bay in his late teens and went up the Nushagak toward Koliganek to trap. He married and became a schoolteacher by virtue of being the only high-school graduate on the river. Today, he is a respected elder, a quiet and canny businessman whose approval is sought before any large village undertaking.
Firewood has been stacked outside the maqi by Nelson's sons and grandsons. They will join him when the stove gets hot. It doesn't take long.
Like most steam baths on the Nushagak, Nelson's maqi has two low-ceilinged rooms, equal in size. The outer room, lit by a single bulb, seats four to a side on facing benches. Plastic buckets of fresh water wait by the door. The men lean against plywood walls with a scrap of carpet under foot. Here they strip, and here they sit baking and talking between spells by the stove.
The other room is dark, with smoky yellow light coming from the adjoining room through a small plastic window. The barrel stove is set low on gravel and covered with rocks.
Beneath a bench in the hot room are aluminum wash pans. Each bather is doled out water, for soaking his cloth and later for washing. Cool water is by the door; water in a can on the stove is boiling hot. Somebody grabs the ladle. Teeth grind.
Moments later, in the outer room, the atmosphere is more relaxed. The talk is of hunting, of commercial fishing in Bristol Bay, of women. A young man tells of shooting a caribou the week before while drifting in his skiff down nearby Cranberry Creek. Another tells of seeing five commercial drift-boat nets tangled around a beach net this summer on the bay. The beach fisherman guarded her net with a gun.
They talk of a young man from Koliganek who is said to have introduced steam baths in St. Michael, a village near the mouth of the Yukon River. There are no trees around St. Michael, and everyone marvels at the thought of taking a maqi with driftwood that has floated hundreds of miles down the river from inland forests.
Somebody tells a story from last spring at river breakup. Villagers, who lined the bluff above the Nushagak to watch the ice move out, spotted an entire dry tree coming downstream on an ice floe. A daring youth ran to the river's edge, hopped from one floe to another till he reached the tree. He tossed the tree from one floe to the next, all the way back to shore. One slip, and he would have been lost beneath the ice.
When he reached land, he looked up proudly at his audience and said, "Maqi wood!"
The bathers dress and disperse. Nelson throws a few more logs into the stove, then walks up to the house with his towel over his arm. In the corner is the CB.
He speaks into the microphone: "Steam time, you women."