You are reading Fiddleblack #1
On the fourth we get sun and a glassy calm for morning and my father lets my brother Joel take the tiller for most of the way into town. I sit in the front of the skiff feeling spray on my face even though I’m facing the stern: Joel likes to go fast. In the back part of Port Armstrong, where my father can’t see him, he practices figure eights and circles at top speed. He’s ten. I’m eleven, so right now it seems like I’m only one year older than he is, but I’m almost twelve.
As we swing out toward Chatham Strait, I’m lying back in the bow and I watch Nipple Top stopping being Nipple Top. Nipple Top’s the mountain that sits across the bay, and the top only looks like a nipple because of the way two peaks line up when you are at the cabin. I thought its real name was Nipple Top, but it turns out that’s just what my father calls it. We were on it once—the front part, not the nipple part. The breast, I guess. We went hunting for deer and got above the tree line. Luckily we didn’t see any deer because I said if we saw one I was going to scare it away. We were looking down on the lakes above the cabin, that’s how high we were. It was beautiful. Joel was tired though, and he whined about walking so much, which was annoying but I could kind of understand. Sometimes it seems like my father doesn’t realize how little he is.
We went to town—Port Alexander—only one time before, and it was raining then. It’s six miles in the skiff, past Port Consolation, and then you have to hook down south and come back up again into the harbor. This time we are going to spend the night.
That first time in Port Alexander we went to where the phone is and called my mother in California, but we didn’t get to talk for very long. It’s expensive and people were waiting. She said the cats were fine and not a whole lot else. She sounded normal. That was the only time I’ve talked to her since we got here, which was about a month ago. I wonder what she does all day, and I wonder what the house feels like with only her in it.
Port Alexander felt exciting even that day in the rain. There was the phone, of course. The phone is at Joe Hollis’s house, which is also the library—really his books, because he’s a reader, but other people give him theirs, too. My father borrowed The Hound of the Baskervilles to read to us. You don’t need a library card, you just sign an index card. Everyone knows everyone here. I liked the store, too, even though my father says it’s a rip-off. One good thing about it is that it’s where you pick up the mail. That first time, a letter from my mother was waiting: she had to send it even before we left home, that’s how long the mail takes. The store smelled like all the stuff it sells, like motor parts and food and rain gear and the rain tracked in on the wood floors, all uneven from where people walk. They had a gas heater going that day. An old bald man, Oly, was sitting by the counter not doing anything and people who came in were nice to him. He was all yellow, even his lips and eyeballs. My father says he goes to Sitka every now and then to dry out, and then the yellow fades. Oly lived in Port Alexander even during the ghost town times. I can’t believe how yellow his eyeballs are: they look fake.
On that first visit to town I didn’t get to meet my pen pals. For my states project I did Alaska and got to be pen pals with Candace Oldham and Annalise Heaps, and I was hoping to see them, but we weren’t in town long enough.
At Port Armstrong it’s just the three of us, my father, my little brother, and me. Just us and the ruins of the herring reduction plant. My father’s going to blow it up with dynamite eventually. He’s going to build a salmon hatchery. The rocks on the beach over there are stained with rust, and you can find weird bits of iron, like crusty bolts and washers or heavy lumps of machinery. A Norwegian guy built an apartment in the middle of the ruins, which aren’t totally ruined. He moved out, and we used his sauna once. We were sitting there naked and sweating when the wall behind the wood stove caught fire and we had to haul water up to put it out. My father said we were really calm in the face of an emergency, but it didn’t really seem like an emergency at the time.
When we get close to town my father takes the tiller and I turn to face forward. Port Alexander is full of boats, like everyone is in for the Fourth. Skiffs are three deep at the dock and lots of moored trollers are all spiking their poles up. All kinds of people are out and about because there are going to be games. The store is crowded and my father has us wait outside on the porch, which is crowded too. We look down at the people on the dock.
My father comes out and gives us two letters from my mother. She’s drawn scrolly hearts on the back of one with felt tip markers. She sent the first one the day we left and the other one a week later and in each one she tells us newsy bits and describes the scene, like in the second one how it’s dusk and she’s sitting at her desk having eaten chicken livers for dinner and just gotten off the phone with Aunt Nance. She has nice handwriting.
Then my father takes us and our overnight stuff up from the harbor to one of the old houses. It’s set back from the boardwalk on a little boardwalk of its own. My father always has some kind of connection for things like this. Whoever lives here is out of town. This house was built back when Port Alexander was almost a city, by Alaska standards, before it died and before the new people came and started making it a real town again. Most of the new people build places on the other side of the harbor.
My father takes the guest bed and Joel and I get to stay in the attic. Joel is downstairs with my father, who is in the kitchen with some beer. My brother likes the taste of beer, though of course he doesn’t drink it.
I set up my sleeping bag. I find a Nancy Drew and I generally don’t like Nancy Drews but I start it anyway. It smells musty like the attic. Nancy Drews are pretty dumb. You know exactly what is going to happen. From up here you can’t see the port, but you can see out the other direction across the trees to Chatham Strait, even over to Kuiu Island.
A line of people is waiting for the phone but we eventually get to call my mother. She isn’t home, though. Where does a person by herself go on the Fourth of July? Or she could be out feeding the chickens, maybe, and didn’t hear the phone. Or vacuuming: she sometimes turns on classical music really loud when she vacuums, and maybe she didn’t hear the phone. But she would never do that if there was a chance we would call. I did let it ring a long time.
I wanted to tell her about going over to the ocean. One day we took the skiff way back to the end of Port Lucy, which is so long it nearly cuts through Baranof Island, and we hiked through the forest. Here the forests are rain forests. The ground was spongy, and we pushed through ferns. The spines on the underside of devil’s club sometimes combed through my hair and I almost grabbed the spiky stalk of one as we were climbing over a huge fallen log. We could hear the ocean before we got to it, all booming and crashing even though it was a calm day. Then the sky opened up and we were in the bright gray of the beach. There on the ocean side it was like a different world. Everything was bigger—the ocean, and the crashing waves, and the rocks on the beach, and the wind. Even the barnacles and Chinese hats. The barnacles were huge, an inch across at least. My father leaned all relaxed against a big rock and scraped Chinese hats off with his pocket knife. If he went fast they didn’t have time to clamp down. Then he’d spin the tip of his knife around in the shell to get out the meat. They were as big as half dollars. He ate lots of them, even though they were salty and tough. He keeps his knife really sharp. We saw puffins. I had never seen them before. They rode the swells or stood around on the rocks with their big orange feet showing.
That day, when we got back to the skiff on the inland side, it seemed like we were in such a safe little place, like we were skipping the real Alaska and living protected, but then we passed a jellyfish the size of a trash can lid. It looked like some huge ghost thing swelling up from under the water.
I think my mother would like hearing about the puffins.
I hope she is okay.
After the phone my father returns The Hound of the Baskervilles. He finished reading it aloud. He’d read by the window smoking pot while my brother and I tried to feel sleepy in spite of glowing jaws and vicious giant hounds and especially the actual light still coming in the windows at ten pm. I started sleeping under the bed. I hollowed out a space behind a bunch of cardboard boxes, right next to the wall, and now I crawl in from the foot. I like being tucked under there in the dark, but I think Joel is a little sorry to be alone in that big bed, even though my father’s bunk is maybe five steps away, over on the shady side of the cabin.
The first games are up on the boardwalk near where we are staying.
Paul Howard is there. He is younger than my father but definitely a grown up. He has sandy brown-blond hair and dark brown eyes, which is a lovely combination. One day near the start of our visit he came up to Port Armstrong with his brother and a lady named Tate; they all sat around with my father drinking and saying how nice it was to see the sun and be too hot. I guess it’s been a late spring. Paul plays guitar. He’s really nice. He signs up with me for the three-legged race and the egg toss. We win the egg toss, mostly because Paul dives after a wild throw from me. He crashes off the boardwalk into the salmonberry bushes and skids his back all along the edge, but he catches our egg. I watch everyone else’s egg eventually break and slime all over their hands, and I keep expecting that to happen to me, too. I keep imagining that slime. I am really almost feeling it every time I catch the egg, so when we win it feels like a mistake.
I know Paul can’t possibly like me like me, but I wish he did. He should get together with Tate.
Joel and my father did the three-legged race together, but Joel doesn’t really like games like this. My father doesn’t either.
Candace Oldham finds me after the egg toss. She has long brown hair with feathery bangs and is super skinny. I think she is interested in me because I am new. I would think that in a town so tiny, kids would get along, but Candace is kind of mean about Annalise. “The Heaps are the snottiest kids I ever did see,” she says. “They always sass. Because their mom never spanked them enough when they were littler.” Annalise Heaps has four sisters and a new baby brother. I haven’t met her yet.
Candace and I hang around at the dock and watch the skiff race, or at least the start and end of it since they go out across the harbor and back. The grownups obviously take this race really seriously. Tate even finds out that her oars were partially sawed through, which is why one of them breaks on her first hard pull. I say she should say something, but she just says hmm.
Then people hang around watching the greased pole. It is a sapling with the bark stripped off sticking out from the dock and smeared with something yellowish. Everyone who tries it ends up in the drink—you have to get out to the tip and grab the flag nailed to the end as you fall in. The grownups especially are pretty clumsy. They start to grab before they get near the end and pitch over into the water way too soon. One guy whacked his ribs when he fell.
I am really good at it. I walk out sideways taking tiny steps. I like feeling of being out there above the black water and everyone watching, my father too. The pole bends only a little under my weight, even at the end. The water is so cold that the first time I fall in I almost can’t breathe when I come up. I haul myself out onto the dock and my pants drip puddles around me. The sun is strong enough to get through my wet shirt. People keep wanting to see people try and they pony up more prize money. I get so good at it that I can even go out, grab the flag, and come back without falling in. By then people are less interested. Still, I win sixty-two dollars, which is the most money I’ve ever had. It is supposed to be more, actually, but not everyone who says they’ll pay does it. My father left sometime in the middle of all that.
Candace walks back with me to the attic and I change. We see my father there and he says he is going to be out for the evening. I can tell he’s already had a few. He is also smoking cigarettes, which he mostly doesn’t do. He says Joel’s gone fishing at the dock.
Candace and I wander around town. That really means just up and down the boardwalk since we aren’t going to row across the bay. “Besides,” Candace says, “Annalise is over there, being snotty.” Candace says the teacher made them write the letters. “Annalise only wrote you back because the teacher was going to write her name up.” They don’t ride schoolbuses in Port Alexander: they ride skiffs.
Later Paul and some other people are playing guitar near the store, all kind of down-homey and actually in a circle. Joel is there and looks bored, but I don’t try to get his attention. He’s the only kid. Candace and I stand around the edges for a while.
They sing the song about Candace’s dad, who is famous:
Dirty Dick, Dirty Dick, your fingers are so thick,
Your hands are as hard and as strong as a brick.
If you had not left the forests of Maine,
The City of Port Alexander would not be the same.
That’s the chorus, and there’s another part about Candace’s mom Frankie, and how much she puts up with. She works at the cannery.
My father says Dirty Dick is the town drunk. I’ve never seen Dirty Dick, but I still think the town drunk has to be Oly instead, the yellow guy who sits in the store.
Candace doesn’t say anything about the song. I can’t tell if she likes it or not.
By now it is late enough to be getting dark, which probably means it is about eleven pm. Candace says, “I feel like a mayo sandwich.” I don’t understand what she says because I’ve never heard of a mayo sandwich. “Mayo sandwich. You know, mayo, bread. We can get it on my dad’s boat.”
So we walk back around from the store dock to the other dock, the one near the cannery. Everyone is somewhere else, so we don’t see anyone on the way, just sometimes hear people hubbub coming across the water and now and then some firecrackers. There aren’t any real fireworks. We’re walking normally on the dock at first, but when we get close to the boat Candace starts sneaking, which kind of scares me: she says she’ll get in trouble if her dad sees. We can hear him inside with someone, talking in a loud party kind of way even though it sounds like there are just two of them. It is a hand troller, not a big boat. The food is in a wooden cupboard mounted on the outside of the cabin and she creeps on board in the shadows and gets the mayo and the bread and makes sandwiches on the gunwale. I stay on the dock and try not to make any noise at all.
Suddenly Candace throws the stuff back in the cupboard and jumps back onto the dock.
“Run,” she says. “He’s got the gun.” She shoves my sandwich into my hand as we take off and she is ahead of me even though I am running as hard as I can. We can hear him behind us coming out. We crouch behind some bushes far back on shore. “He’s just having fun,” she says. She is breathing really hard. We can kind of see his outline, but we can’t see him clearly, so we don’t know what he is doing with the gun. Then we hear him fire. I can feel blood pounding in my ears and I don’t want to move.
I feel shaky as we walk back down the boardwalk toward the store.
I like the mayo sandwich but the white bread sticks to the roof of my mouth. My mother never buys white bread. I wish she had been home to talk to. It’s been almost two weeks since I talked to her and sometimes I’m afraid she’s dead. I don’t mention this to Joel because I don’t want to scare him. If she died, would we live here?
My father isn’t at the house when I get there. Joel is already asleep in the attic. He is slid off the pad and scuttled almost to the edge under the eave where the flooring ends and the joists show. I hope my father put him to bed. I want to finish the Nancy Drew, but it is too dark. Not that you really need to read the end of a Nancy Drew. I get into my sleeping bag.
I think that was probably a shotgun Dirty Dick shot. It was loud.
On the beach in front of the cabin at Port Armstrong we learned to shoot and my father made my brother fire the shotgun. He set up a target, an X on cardboard, and we both practiced with the .22. Its mounted scope helps a lot. Then came the 12 gauge, for Joel anyway.
Joel didn’t want to fire the 12 gauge the first time, and when it kicked back on his shoulder hard and whanged his ears he really didn’t want to do it again. It hurt my ears and I wasn’t even standing right next to them, so Joel’s ears must have even felt bloody.
It was hard to watch them. I could see my father trying to figure out how far he should go, which I think was a lot less far than he did go, and I could see my brother trying to look good and still not have to shoot. My father let Joel not fire it the second time.
My father didn’t make me fire it at all, even though I’m older, because I’m a girl, which kind of made me mad but I was relieved, too. I am good with the .22, better than my brother. I got up early in the morning and shot a squirrel. It didn’t die right away: it was writhing on the ground and I had to shoot it again from right up close.
Getting that squirrel was me not figuring out how far to go. I just wanted to be first, to beat Joel. I didn’t really think what that would mean to him. He hasn’t gotten one yet.
I’ve held the shotgun and could’ve fired it when we went to Big Port Walter to get salmon specimens. You have to make sure the salmon eggs you use to start your hatchery are good ones, so you have to take samples. My dad learned this at fish culture school in Sitka last winter. We set up at the mouth of the creek where all the spawned out salmon hang around to die. You can catch them in a gill net but not with bait because they don’t care about eating anymore. We cast the net and had no problem getting a bunch. We cut a flap in each one to get a little piece of the liver, the kidney, and the gut, and we put that in a little baggie and then sterilized our blades on a little torch before we moved on. My father was chucking the dead ones back into the creek and they mixed with the lives ones, which were mostly almost dead anyway. They get covered with fungus and start falling apart even while they are still swimming around. Then the tide came in and part of the net got underwater and more fish, ones we didn’t need, got snarled in the edge of the net and died. It was nasty.
Joel and I got some samples but then we explored abandoned houses while my father kept working. That’s when he gave us the shotgun, so we’d have it for protection from bears. The bushes were so high it was like walking in a maze. We took turns carrying the shotgun. Big Port Walter must have been a big settlement once. Some kind of mill was set up on a hill next to the creek. In the houses in the flats by the water we found bed frames and rusted cans and even some old magazines. I found Life from 1961. The first Astrochimp was on the cover. Ham was his name. I thought they sent all those chimps on one way trips, but this one got to come back.
We didn’t hear a bear, or see one. I don’t like the thought of meeting a bear in the bushes and when I am alone I always whistle. Joel says he isn’t afraid, but I guess I don’t admit that I am, either. We did make a lot of noise. Both of us made noise.
Now in the attic I can hear Joel breathing, under the eaves. He’s curled up small and kind of buried in his sleeping bag. He’s a hard sleeper, so I grab the sleeping bag and drag him back. He feels heavy and loose. He mumbles a little, something I can’t understand, and doesn’t wake up. He still has white-blonde hair, like mine used to be. Mine is more a dishwater color now.
My father hasn’t come back by the time I fall asleep.
The next day my father takes the tiller for the ride back to Port Armstrong. Joel’s in the bow this time, and a tarped bunch of supplies is piled between him in the bow and my father and me in the stern. Joel falls asleep almost before we get out of the port, which is so quiet it feels empty, even though there are still plenty of boats. Partway home my father throws his pack of cigarettes into the drink.
“Why’d you do that?” I ask. “Isn’t that kind of a waste?”
“I quit,” he says. His clothes are dirty and he sits at the tiller with a faroff look, like he’s not really here.
When we are almost at Port Armstrong, a whale comes up between us and the shore. First it blows and is just sitting there on the surface. Its back could be just a log or a rock if you didn’t know. I’ve never seen one from so near—it’s only maybe three skiff lengths away.
My father has stopped and the motor is idling.
Then it starts to dive. It bends itself into a sharp C and starts going down. It doesn’t seem like something so huge could be so flexible. Its diving takes forever, because it’s moving slow like it doesn’t care we are there, or doesn’t know, but also it’s enormous. All hunched like that it looks like a wheel spinning, like a slick black wheel, and the fin when it eventually comes out of the water looks like a cog or the tooth of a blade. Finally its tail shows. It’s at least as wide as the boat. Water pours off the flukes. Its body seems too thick, down near the tail. It is going so slowly it doesn’t even splash, not even at the end: the water just closes over it, just swallows it up.
“Please don’t go closer,” I say. The skiff’s only fourteen feet long and the whale is in a little cove and maybe trapped by us. I think we are maybe blocking its way out into open water.
Joel wakes up all rumpled and pulls on the aluminum sides to sit up. “What happened,” he says.
“Shh,” says my father.
He revs the motor just a little and he steers us all quiet right to where the whale was heading.
Then he shuts off the motor. It is silent.
I don’t breathe. I can see the puff of whale breath still drifting toward shore.
We just sit there. I imagine the whole whale, moving under us, moving up under us, not even knowing we are here.
“You ever smell the spray before?” my father asks after a few minutes. “Smells like the kitchen sink.”
I don’t say anything, and neither does Joel, who luckily didn’t see the whale and doesn’t even know why we stopped.
The whale doesn’t come back up.
My father starts the motor and heads into Armstrong. His face is empty again.
It’s just a few days after the Fourth that the mail plane is scheduled to make a special stop at Port Armstrong to pick up Joel and me so we can go home. The night before it comes we get my mother on the ship-to-shore radio, which is for emergencies. It’s even more expensive than the phone. She is there, so she isn’t dead, but all we get to say is we are coming as planned.
When the mail plane lands it shoots up walls of water. The pilot is in a hurry so my father hustles our stuff up to him, all focused on that, and Joel and I strap ourselves in. We each take a window which means we are kind of far from each other. Joel is in a little single seat right behind the door. I can see my father’s eyes are watery when he hugs us goodbye. He hugs me first, and then Joel. Then he gets back into the skiff and the mail guy shuts the door behind him. The plane chugs down the bay and then turns around and starts speeding up to take off. I watch my father on the shore. He’s standing there the way he does, with his weight on one leg, and he has one hand up high, waving it sometimes, and we pull up out of the water and east over the trees and then bank north.
The plane we came down in was much smaller, and bounced around a lot because the ceiling was so low that day, but today the sky is clear. I can see Armstrong shrinking, and Nipple Top not looking at all like Nipple Top, but like two separate peaks just like all the others down there. I pick out Port Lucy and then Port Walter, but then we are in new territory. There’s one stop for mail at a place that has only two houses I can see. There are kids on the dock. I wonder if they live there all year round.
After we get to Sitka, Joel and I put on our backpacks and walk from the aviation terminal to the Sitka Hotel. My father made a reservation, but they don’t have a reservation for us and they don’t have any vacancy, either. I guess I look sort of worried because the clerk gives us a room anyway. It’s a little one toward the back with a small high window. Maybe hotels have extra rooms just in case.
Our flight is the next day. We have all afternoon, and some time the next morning, and nothing to do. I like being in the hotel and just lying on the bed, but we walk around some. It seems sunnier and warmer in Sitka. Down the street from the hotel is the Pioneer Home, which is where my father says he wants to end up. It’s an old folks’ home, but I think it is also maybe where Oly goes when he comes to Sitka to dry out. If Dirty Dick gets jaundice and has to come here, Candace could take the mail plane and visit him.
We choose Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner because we never get that at home. We buy a whole bucket and eat it on a bench by the harbor. It smells muddy because it’s low tide. On the next bench an old man comes and sits down. He looks mean and has a cane and a fisherman’s cap and messy white stubble over his jowls.
When we get back to the room I am feeling sick. I barely make it to the bathroom and then I throw up. It keeps happening, but by nighttime I am not throwing up anything. It is like I am turning inside out and I can’t stop it. Joel feels okay, which is good. The next morning I go to the front desk and get Alka Seltzer. They sell it in packets. The clerk says, “Had a big night, did you?” and he laughs, which I don’t understand. I’ve never taken Alka Seltzer before. As soon as I take a sip the throwing up starts again.
Luckily by the time we have to go to the airport I am feeling better, and we take a cab and make it to our flight okay. It isn’t foggy, like it was on the way up, and we fly straight to Seattle no problem.
People in Alaska joke about the lower 48 and the concrete jungle but it does feel strange. We are still grimy from being in Port Armstrong, and on the first plane a lot of other people are too. Then we change planes in Seattle and suddenly everyone is clean. People are wearing suits and rushing. The intercom lady talks about flights and the white courtesy telephone. Outside it’s cement and hangars as far as you can see.
I feel like people are examining us, but like they are embarrassed about looking and that’s why their eyes skitter when I look back. I stop looking back. I notice now how dirty Joel’s face is: it is gray and even has some streaks on it, except for a clean patch around his mouth. I wish I washed his face. Also that I showered at the hotel, or at least brushed my hair better, but when I comb my fingers through it, I can feel the grease and I stop so it doesn’t look even worse. I tried to keep clean at Port Armstrong, but we only washed in the creek and the water was so cold it gave me a headache.
We get to board the plane early because we are unaccompanied minors. When I stretch my hand out to give our tickets my sleeve goes up and I see that my wrists are gray. My brother takes the window and I am in the middle. The stewardess is nice but I don’t like how she looks at us when she comes to give us our plastic wings.
The regular people start coming in and finding their seats. I feel sorry for the person who is supposed to sit next to me. I think I even smell bad.
When I get home I’ll try to get the grime off. My mother has been to Alaska, and I hope she doesn’t mind that I am dirty.
Cristina Mathews has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from SUNY Stony Brook. She is an associate professor of English at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in The Bilingual Review, Hispanic Review, Revista de Estudios Hispánicos, and, long ago, in Southern Changes.