But above all else, even as dark film from an oil spill worked its way toward the rocky shoreline, it was quiet here.
The girl and her father lived in a one-room wooden cabin. The roof was thatched with a tin-capped chimney overlooking Winter Trail Road. Today there was a thin tail of smoke coming from the chimney. Steam worked its way up the flue from boiling crab in a cast iron pot. It was breakfast time. A half-mile down the mountain Winter Trail Road was a pockmarked stretch of overgrown concrete and exposed rebar that hadn’t seen a vehicle, government issued or otherwise, since the early 1980s. On paper there was a lingering joint agreement between the United States and Russia to build a bridge or tunnel across the Bering Strait. There were only rare sightings of government officials that helicoptered into the region, armed with surveyors and engineers who mapped and measured the coastline and then left only to be heard from again in half a decade. At least it was a predictable intrusion.
In their little cabin the girl and her father were able to forget the world for long stretches of time. They occasionally switched on a small battery powered radio and caught a BBC signal that reported news from the outside world. The news was most always bad and mercifully seemed a million miles away. Though today, on this early March morning, cold and blustery, that would change. There would be no need to check the radio. The news would break in front of them.
To witness them here the girl and her father seemed like extraterrestrials living at the far ends of the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve in northern Alaska. The father was very much a pioneer, an explorer, and his girl his shadow. They were sandy-haired and brown-eyed, and the father was built thick and sturdy like a logger from Michigan. Though the daughter was lithe, they were so clearly father and daughter.
In the 1990s the father had come to work the southern oil pipeline and had deserted his contract a month and a half in. A survivalist and an Army veteran from the oil patch in west Texas, he packed a bag of gear and wound his way along a stream that forked westward through dense tree cover until he settled near Ikpek Lagoon, where the land he broke had been hard won. Supplies came slowly over the years, but he had built a home. He had started a family. And there had been heartache. The father liked to tell his girl that the world would never know that they were born, lived, and died. Only after they turned to dust would the fossil record betray their existence.
And yet this part of the world held its own mysterious majesty. The girl and her father were happy to have it. All around them were towering Sitka and White spruce, their beautiful dark blue-green needles carpeting the forest floor. The girl and her father used the needles as toothpicks and chewed them so that the thick, sticky saliva could rinse the mouth. Orange-brown spruce cones with papery scales ornamented the hard-packed ground and bright green moss poked through the snow in winter. The girl and her father had worked dirt paths that criss-crossed the forest, of which a hiker might mistake for simple deer trails. When the girl was born 13 years ago her father had already been living at Ikpek Lagoon for a decade. Within the borders of the forest they were everyone.
Ten miles north of Winter Trail Road was a village named Kongiganak full of Yupik people, who still lived according to tribal custom, fishing for Pacific salmon and seal. The Eskimo men lived in communal houses known as gasgiqs and the women lived in enas and they mostly kept to themselves. Even still they were protective of their territory, and so the girl and her father kept to themselves. All the father knew of the tribe was that their children were named after the last person in the community to have died, so that there was an endless circle of names that had never been broken.
Years ago the father had married a Yupik woman against the wishes of her tribe. She had died in childbirth, passing her name to the infant girl. That the girl survived was a small miracle, her little body purpled and wet with her mother’s blood. A Yupik midwife, the girl’s grandmother, had saved her life. She died before the girl turned two, and the girl did not know her family tree on either side. Her father was trunk and branch alike. The girl’s mother was buried somewhere in Kongiganak, a grave marker the girl had never seen.
Like the Yupik people, the girl and her father lived off the sea. They checked sea-strewn traps and pots for opilio and tanner crabs. They caught salmon in their nets. They occasionally brought in a seal, and they sometimes traded with the Yupik for furs, but hadn’t needed to do so in more than a year. They would trade again when the girl fully hit puberty, when her chest filled out and her height settled. In winter, fishing was best just after six in the evening, near dusk, and that left most of the day for prep. The girl would set traps in the morning and return in the evening. In the meantime, there were nets to mend. Wood to chop. Food to prepare and preserve.
From the shoreline they would often spot commercial fishing rigs trolling close to Ikpek Lagoon, wayward and greedy and out of their normal waters. The girl and her father were losing catch to commercial boats, and every month they tallied fewer crab. They didn’t need much, but what little there was they were losing. The father told the girl tales he had read in a history book of Russians coming through in the 1800s, scouts in wooden skiffs anchoring off shore, poaching marine life and mapping the coast for Emperor Alexander I. And now history was repeating itself.
After dusk blinking lights from oilrigs worked like metronomes in the night sky, the oil rigging working the sea bottom below, the outside world closing in. It was possible to see the oilrig lights from the cabin porch at night, twinkling brightly through the spruce.
Ringing the shoreline a dense cluster of spruce rose 200 or more feet in the air, the dark purplish bark, gray in spots, giving the forest and its middle distance color. The sun had just shown itself over the eastern horizon and webbed through the trees. On this morning the girl, tall and coltish and bundled in bear fur with caribou skin linings, came to the shoreline to unmoor her weathered wooden boat. It was a small boat, twelve feet in length and four feet across with a set of sunbleached oars. The girl handled it with skill. There were 10 crab pots to check and reset and the surf looked challenging, crashing loudly into the rocks.
The girl looked out across the Bering Sea, its vastnesses opening up before her. There was sea ice to contend with, making the water more dangerous and choppy. She saw a mammoth bit of sea ice overrun with walrus adrift and floating westward toward Russia. And to the girl’s surprise and horror, the water was stained inky black, shining metallic in the early morning light. The walrus were covered in crude. Some howled in agony. Others slipped lifelessly from the ice into the water.
She had never seen water like this. The girl visored her palm and squinted toward the water. She saw that the sea spray was black, foaming wildly along the beachhead. Further out, past the first breaks, the sea roiled against the wind, unnaturally darkened all the way to the horizon where an oilrig bobbed on the surface. Its lights were flashing in alarm. To the south an injured oil tanker lolled in rough water, spilling its dark black guts. The girl put a handful of spruce needles into her mouth. She chewed the needles vigorously until her mouth worked into a nervous lather.
The girl left her boat moored and sprinted east through the forest. There were downed trees that she hurdled along the trail. When she got to Winter Trail Road she could see that tail of smoke from the chimney rising through the trees. She sprinted up the mountain, the snow dirty and brown at the trail edges. She had memorized the switchbacks and ran swiftly in her moccasins. When she gained the top of the hill the cabin was in clear sight. Over the years the girl and her father had cleared the land surrounding the cabin and there was an opening in the forest canopy. Everything else was in its place: the shed next to the house, firewood chopped and stacked along its side wall, a meat cellar dug into the ground beyond that, three laundry lines strung between trees, a ring of stones that made a fire pit for smoking meat, and a series of tanning posts staked into the ground.
There were three rifles the girl didn’t recognize leaning against the front porch wall. When the girl entered the cabin three large Yupik men stood bundled in furs in a semi-circle talking with her father. They were speaking English, and the cabin smelled strongly of boiled crab.
“Darling, these men are here about the oil,” the father said. The Yupik men nodded at the girl, their round faces stoic and wrinkled around the eyes. It had been years since Yupik men had been inside the cabin, and here they were, confirming bad news.
“It’s all over the shore,” the girl confirmed. “The beachhead is washed in it.” The father gave her a small smile, meant to reassure. She had done well by him.
“You should know this is your grandfather,” the father said. The words were surprising and came out quickly. The girl felt her cheeks redden. Her father gestured toward the largest Yupik man, his nose broad and lips full. The man’s gray hair was gathered into a ponytail that spilled down his back, and he extended his hand. The girl took his hand, rough like a paw, and the man pulled her in and hugged her.
After a moment the man let go of the girl. There was an uneasiness in the cabin, and so the girl went and stood by her father, who put his arm around her and pulled her close. The girl glanced at the radio stashed in the corner. If her father had wanted to listen for news of the spill the radio would have already been switched on.
The men and the girl stood in silence. There was little to say. The oil would wreck the shore. The sea was poisoned. The girl imagined her crab traps and pots submerged below growing slicks on the surface above. The marine life choking on crude, birds tarred and de-feathered, lost to flight. The girl waited for her father to speak, for any of the men to speak.
“We’re leaving with these men,” the father said. “Your grandfather has invited us into their village. We’ll move inland with them. Their offer is generous.”
The girl didn’t want to leave. This was all she had ever known. But she knew there would be nothing for them here, not for many years. They could always return. The cabin would still be here. The helicopters would come sooner than expected this time. Government men would collect data. The oil company would set up camp. Cleanup ships would anchor and dot the shoreline. Official vehicles might find their way to Winter Trail Road again. The quiet would be lost. It already was.
The girl and her father gathered their things into two large bags. They followed the Yupik men out. There was a 10-mile hike ahead of them. They would travel first to Kongiganak, where the Yupik would break camp over the following week. Then they would migrate south to the Kuzitrin River and settle on its banks. That was the plan. They would be near Teller, Alaska, where in 1828 the Inupiat had a fishing camp discovered by the Beechey Expedition. The small town had been called Libby Station before Sheldon Jackson renamed it for United States Senator and Secretary of the Interior Henry Moore Teller in 1892. This history meant nothing to the father and the girl, and even less to the Yupik. It was not their history.
Near Teller the girl would be close enough to go to school if she wanted. She would know her Yupik cousins. She might know her aunts. Everything would be different. The girl’s father would continue subsistence hunting and fishing. The girl would help. They might stay with the Yupik. And they might move into Teller. And they might break out on their own, just father and daughter, the way it had always been. They would certainly regain the quiet. The girl would see to it.
Blake Kimzey‘s fiction has been broadcast on NPR and published by Tin House, McSweeney’s, Green Mountains Review, FiveChapters, The Lifted Brow, Hobart, Puerto del Sol, The Los Angeles Review, Short Fiction, PANK, The Masters Review, Surreal South ’13, and included in The Best Small Fictions 2015 Anthology. He is the recipient of an Emerging Writer grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation and his chapbook of short tales, Families Among Us, an Indie Bestseller now in its second printing, won the 2013 Black River Chapbook Competition and was published by Black Lawrence Press in September 2014. Blake received his MFA from UC-Irvine and now teaches creative writing at UT-Dallas. More @BlakeKimzey