Authors: Cindy Dyson
Dedicated to Mark,
for all the right reasons
by Talking Heads, 1986
And she was lying in the grass
And she could hear the highway breathing
And she could see a nearby factory
She’s making sure she is not dreaming
See the lights of a neighbor’s house
Now she’s starting to rise
Take a minute to concentrate
And she opens up her eyes
The world was moving, she was right there with it (and she was)
The world was moving she was floating above it (and she was)
And she was drifting through the backyard
And she was taking off her dress
And she was moving very slowly
Rising up above the earth
Moving into the universe
Drifting this way and that
Not touching ground at all
Up above the yard
She was glad about it…no doubt about it
She isn’t sure where she’s gone
No time to think about what to tell them
No time to think about what she’s done
And she was looking at herself
And things were looking like a movie
She had a pleasant elevation
She’s moving out in all directions
Joining the world of missing persons (and she was)
Missing enough to feel alright (and she was)
SPRING 1741; SPRING 1961
felt the edge slip sometimes. When I was there. Nothing obvious, just the disquieting feeling that something had come loose, something had shifted and reassembled itself beneath me. There are places like that. Places that fall apart and re-form right under your boots. Places that can remake you. I think now it’s because these places themselves are still undone, still being formed.
The Pacific plate began its slow plunge under the American plate, revealing the red meat of the earth. Along the wound, volcanoes rose like cysts, spewing molten rock into cool water, creating the Aleutian chain seventy million years ago. Strewn like stepping-stones, the 1,400-mile island chain arched from the Alaskan Peninsula to the doorstep of Siberia. And then the winds began, so persistent, so fierce, the islands became the Birthplace of the Wind and the Cradle of Storms. The winds erode from above; the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean wear from below.
These islands are at once being born and dying. The battle of fire and water is old and living. Both will keep killing. And keep giving life. This is the edge, the slip. They are, like us, unfinished. People do not possess such places but are possessed by them. I felt it when I was there. I imagine the Aleut people have been feeling it for thousands of years.
And I believe some of them still remember the power that lurks in this land. When I first heard their story, I felt as if the wind were lifting a veil, revealing something I already knew. And some part of my brain stepped back from the edge of extinction and smiled. Their story takes a shape our instincts recognize. The whisper under a shout. And in my mind, I’m standing again on a cliff overlooking that siren ocean, feeling the wind press into my lungs. And I, too, remember.
It blows over the beach below on this sunny, cold afternoon long ago and into the face of Tekuxia as she stands among the rocks and sand. She and thirty others from her village have gathered here at Tumgax’s request. Another vision has come to him.
“Something is coming,” Tumgax says, leaning forward to peer into each person’s eyes. “The wind will bring newcomers from beyond the sea, and everything will change.”
Tekuxia shudders when the shaman tells of these visions. Her children whimper with nightmares after such talk. But she listens well.
And she believes.
“Last night I journeyed again to where the spirits talk.” Tumgax turns his face to search past the breakers, past the towering rocks guarding the village cove, toward the open ocean. “These newcomers will bring new ways. The People will take up their ideas, their clothing, their lives. Until no one remembers who we were.”
Tekuxia shivers under the cold sun. The villagers know there exist people much different from themselves. Twice in her thirty-seven years, parts of a whale-size boat have come to rest on the beach. The bits of iron, holding water-soaked wood together, were quickly stripped and hammered into knives and awls, their blades wearing much better than stone. And she has heard the tales of a people to the west, beyond the last island. But these tales have grown so old that they now sound like myths serving only to warn the young men not to venture too far from home.
“When they come,” Tumgax continues, “we will welcome them. We will embrace their God and their
and everything will change.”
As the gathering breaks, Tekuxia scoops up her little girl and holds her close, feeling the dark shiny hair under her cheek. Tekuxia does
not fear for herself; she feels certain her generation will pass before the change. But Aya. Aya will see it all. She sets the girl down and kneels in front of her.
“Aya, you must remember what I am going to tell you. Say you will.”
The girl looks up, surprised by her mother’s urgent tone.
“These hands,” Tekuxia says, turning the sand-caked palms upward in her own, “in them you hold your fate, and in no one’s hands but your own does your future rest. Do you understand?”
Aya understands only the strange desperation in her mother’s voice, only the first notions of fear. But she nods.
In the years to come, Aya will listen to her mother repeat this strange ceremony, the turning up of her palms and the heavy words. But she will not come to understand them until her mother is long gone and the change has blown down upon her like a williwaw.
Hurl yourself forward 220 years and fly inland to another girl learning at her mother’s side. My mother’s legacy of wisdom was no less insistent, no less burdened by a maternal instinct to warn her daughter of what she fears.
“Brandy,” she says, buttoning up her blouse, but not too far, as I gaze into the depths of her cleavage, “you always want to take up the hem some on a store-bought dress. At least two inches. Got that?”
Two inches. Two inches.
The water bed sloshes with the rhythm as I repeat the words in a whisper, scared to forget anything even then.
“And,” my mother says, bending forward at the waist to invert her blond curls and burden them with spray, “this Aqua Net is the best shit on the market.”
Aqua Net. Aqua Net.
She takes my face between her two hands as she passes by me for the door. “Such a pretty girl,” she says, and I squint to see past the barriers of black-clumped lashes. I squint to see into the wreck of my mother’s eyes. She throws her customary parting over her shoulder as
she leaves. “Be bad enough so they call you good.” The smell of perfume and hair spray and a protean dampness lingers in the room.
Of course, my mother passes on more of her hard-earned wisdom. I learn about padded bras, and perfume samplers, lying down to zip up tight jeans. And I believed as a five-year-old, as a fifteen-year-old, as a twenty-five-year-old, that a short skirt and the right hair spray are a girl’s sword and talisman.
And as a thirty-one-year-old, when the wind blew me into the Aleutians in 1986, that’s all I had.
JULY 5, 1986
am blond, and that’s where most of my problems started. Not just the problems of the moment, but yesterday’s and last year’s and a lifetime’s. I had let my hair get away with too much. I saw it now reflected in the dark window, those feathers of light surrounding the oval of my face. I could see the ferry’s lounge behind me, striped with orange glow. And I could see right through myself, into the black ocean, rolling like a great wind-billowed tarp. The split worlds met here at my image on thin, cold glass. For a moment, I felt as if that reflection were as real as me.
The ferry had followed a string of islands, simply called the Chain, for three days. I’d rented a cabin, but mostly I’d been sitting here watching. I’d seen the Fourth of July fireworks showering over the water at King Cove when we stopped to unload and reload. I’d seen the piers of Cold Bay, False Pass, Akutan. With each stop the passenger list dwindled, until now it was only me and a group of about twenty guys, heading for the fishing grounds. Tonight we would arrive at the end of the line, Unalaska Island.
Even on such a big boat, heaves of water had made me sick, not enough to embarrass myself by throwing up, but enough to tinge the excitement with greenish-yellow edges. I sipped carefully at a whiskey sour and focused past myself into the blackness.
Dutch Harbor appeared suddenly beyond my reflection as the ferry rounded an invisible point. I watched the lights get closer. All two of them. The ferry terminal was a scrap of light, echoed over the water and hushed everywhere else by mountain black. It looked like a last stand against the night. An outpost of civilization, surrounded but fighting.
At that moment of first seeing, I was afraid of it, this tiny island in the midst of so much nothing. I wanted to stay in this lounge, let the ferry disgorge its last passengers and turn back to the real world with me safely on board. And if I’d had something to go back to, I probably would have done just that. The fear was a premonition, the barest inkling that this place would take something from me, something that would change everything. I was wrong, as it turned out. It wasn’t what the
would take, but what
would take, what I would steal.
I smoothed on fresh lipstick, finger combed my hair, and swallowed hard. I wasn’t sure why I’d come. A rush of hazy thinking, involving, of course, a cute guy with curly hair and no long-range goals.
Of course, I was following a man. Women just don’t come out here on their own.
Not women like me anyway.
It was near morning when the ferry docked, still dark. I grabbed my duffel bag, zipped up my jacket, and hustled down the gangplank right into his arms. I knew I looked good walking through pools of shadow and light on the dock in my tight jeans, pale suede boots, and jacket. I sucked in the ocean-dock smells of dead fish, wet air, and diesel. Smells near the ocean feel ancient to me, like all earth’s history is in that smell. It’s entirely right, entirely mysterious. He smelled the same way—his gray-green oilskin coat, his mud-caked boots, his salt-stiff hair.
We kissed. I could feel his desire to make this reunion more than it was, feel him try to make it one of those cinematic kisses you’d expect when two lovers meet by the sea after a long separation.
“I missed you,” he said, soulful, honest.
The wind blew, snapping my pant legs against my boots and Thad’s oilskin against his legs. I felt flimsy and ill prepared in that wind, the way it rushed at me and over me. But at the same time it carried an undertone, a trailing hint that it shouldn’t feel this way, that I wasn’t living up to its potential.
A sudden irritation flashed through me. “I can’t wait to get you to the hotel room,” I murmured, refusing his interpretation of this script, of me.
He smiled and kissed me again.
Thad checked us into the HiTide, which is the upscale hotel on the island. It has its own bar. Room 114 was covered in paneling. Burgundy flowers amid green trees draped the bedspread, and the same print, reversed into a perverse forest of burgundy trees and green flowers, dressed a child-size window. The stiff fabric shuffled rather than flounced in the drafts from the air vent underneath.
He unbuttoned my jeans as he kneeled in front of me, his breath warm and moist against my abdomen as he exhaled, suddenly cool as he inhaled.
“I missed you,” he murmured, peeking up at me from between my tits.
He had that way about him of charging his gaze with meaning, taking his time, touching with intention. I laughed and stepped back, erecting a barrier with my eyes. I rocked my hips down through the jeans, slowly, hands caressing my thighs.
“Just watch,” I said. I had to be lightly aggressive, formidably coy until his arousal overcame this tendency toward significance. I could not tolerate significance.
“Come here,” he said.
I shook my head and pulled off my shirt, letting it drag my hair across my face. Then I slid my hand into my panties, a sigh slipping through my teeth.
As he approached this time, I didn’t need to push him away. His eyes closed, hands fumbled, groped for my crotch. I’d won. I’d enforced my rule so well he didn’t know there were any. The victory freed a hot melt of arousal. He didn’t speak as I pressed his mouth to my nipple, didn’t open his eyes as our genitals collided, then mine gave way.
Thad was beautiful and energetic, as always. I faked the second orgasm, just to keep up with him. As I lay in the warm glow, I watched him through pretend-closed eyes until he fell to sleep, cheeks still flushed. I’d just come eight hundred miles over the Bering Sea to be with him, and I didn’t know why.
I couldn’t relax, lying right next to so much contentment, so I
dressed, grabbed my jacket, and walked into the dim corridor. Outside, from the mountains to the east, asterisks of light flared in the valleys, sending streaks of color across the hills. I watched three huskies sitting on protruding bumps of a steep hillside across from the motel. Their ruffs stood up in the breeze. They each looked unwaveringly toward the ocean. I followed their gaze and let the wind smooth over my face until my ears crusted with cold, until the last radiating rings of my orgasm dissipated. Then, prompted by something I couldn’t sense, the huskies bounded simultaneously down the hill, silent and smooth. They loped around a curving dirt road out of sight.
The light had spread over the island now, and I turned to survey my new home. The parking lot was half filled with trucks and rust-splotched vans. The HiTide stretched rectangular and flat along a dirt road, its double glass doors smudged with handprints and dog snuffles. Two ashtrays flanked the doors, and the wind dashed a steady stream of butts over their sides. I walked the row of trucks and vans, the little white and brown pilgrims skittering along with me. Below the hotel, water lapped at muddy shores. Tall grasses grew where they could. I could see the blackened stumps of forgotten pilings jutting here and there. The wheelhouse of a submerged fishing boat lay a few feet offshore. To the north stretched the road I’d traveled earlier, a potholed two-lane flanked by immense canneries, Quonset huts and prefab metal buildings offering prop repair, diving services, welding, web patching. The town seemed to exist outside of time. Nothing—not the utilitarian buildings, the signs, the vehicles—spoke of any certain year. Or any decade for that matter. It was 1986, but I got the disconcerting feeling that this place had looked the same ten years ago and would look the same ten years from now.
Toward the south, the road looped around a bay, crossed water, and disappeared between two hills. Another hill, grass covered with bending fireweed below outcrops of weathered rock, rose in front of the hotel. But everywhere else it was mountains. Deceptively soft with sunrise green at the bases, stretching to fog-streaked rock at the tops. Mountain upon mountain as far as I could see. And eagles. I spotted six right by the HiTide, perched on poles or cliffs or flying low over the water, seagulls scattering from their paths.
The steady wind only intensified the illusion of silence—until the
whine of a truck engine separated itself from the rush. I turned to see a pale green, rust-spotted king cab round the bend, spewing arches of gravel behind each tire. It skidded to a stop. The passenger door was flung open.
“Get the fuck out.” The driver, a man with his baseball cap pulled low on his forehead, shoved someone out the open door. He floored the gas, making a clumsy start on the loose gravel. The passenger door flopped several times before the truck’s momentum slammed it shut.
A lumpy figure emerged from the road dust. She clutched a sacklike purse to her chest, making her short-legged walk even more awkward. “Asshole. Fucker. Pisshead.” She muttered a string of names as she crossed the road.
She saw me just before she shuffled into me. Or rather she saw my chest. A good six inches shorter, she had to take a step back to look at my face. “Shit,” she said, dropping her purse with a thud between us. “Gimme a cigarette.”
I slipped a Marlboro from my pack and handed it to her between two fingers, followed by a cheap lighter. Her face disappeared into the seamless cup of her hands and reappeared in a hefty flow of smoke.
She inhaled a few times, then looked up. “Shit,” she said again. “Fuckhead.”
She wore new jeans and a tight raspberry T-shirt with an airbrushed unicorn under an open windbreaker. But what I noticed first were her rings. Every finger had at least one. Turquoise, gold nugget, zircon glinted each time she moved her hands. She was five feet tall, with a round body from which her short arms and legs protruded like sprouts on a potato. Her black hair had been meticulously curled several hours earlier. She wore black boots with high heels that she rocked on from side to side. One of the heels kept kicking out, threatening to come loose.
She eyed me long enough to make me feel uneasy. “White girl. Fuckin’ blond, white girl.” She didn’t say it like an insult, just an observation.
“Very white,” I said, then added, “very fuckin’ white,” just to win her over.
She smiled a touch, not with her mouth so much as with her eyes. Her smooth lids curved downward at the outer corners, and when
something of a smile snuck up on her, they slid out and up. She had beautiful eyes, Aleut eyes. “Come on,” she said, picking up her bag. “I grabbed his stash when he was in the head.”
I couldn’t remember the last time a woman, and only a woman, had asked me to snort coke with her. Sure, plenty of women were usually around, attached or attachable women. But the drugs were all acquired and doled out by men. I felt off balance, a little wary.
She had already slung her purse over one shoulder and started toward the road. She looked back at me without expression. I glanced at the HiTide, where I knew Thad was sleeping sprawled naked across the bed. I pictured his curly hair on the pillow, the curve of his chest muscles over the steady rise and fall of his sleepy lungs. What the hell. The island had cast its spell, and I was used to going along.
She nodded as I fell in step with her. “Bellie,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “Brandy.”
My name comes straight from the liquor cabinet. I can picture the scene: Mom and Dad bring home their new baby girl, set her on the couch, coo a bit, adjust the blanket. What should we call her? I don’t know. How ’bout Victoria? That’s from Dad, of course. What, you want her to grow up to be all snooty? Jane, then, after your mom. A gouging stare. Teresa? Amy? Jan? The possibilities flash between them, threatening regrets, resentments. Nothing comes without baggage. Dad gets up, yanks open the liquor cabinet. He pours amber liquid into a glass. Get me one, she says. He brings glasses and the bottle over, sets them on the coffee table. I’m not quite asleep and Mom runs the back of her hand along my cheek. Dad holds the bottle over her glass and is pouring. Brandy. She says it all breathless with wonder. Brandy. Dad turns the bottle, assesses the label. Brandy. Then they smile, clink their glasses, down a dose each. Can’t turn out bad with a name like that. I fall to sleep, the crisis of the name melting into a warm bubble of boozy domesticity.
Bellie led me off to the right, onto a narrower, rockier road. It curved along the side of one of the hills, where the wind eased. My
back released the cold-stiff I didn’t notice until it left. Discarded rotting tangles of net sunk into the mud along the road. Obsolete hunks of machinery tilted out of the grass. We walked maybe half a mile before the trailer came into view, a single wide, white with a dark brown skirt. A porch clung to the south side. A forgotten dory rotted into the shallow soil. She climbed three steps to the porch and gave the door a brutish shove. It gave, caught on something, then swung wide open.
“This is my place,” she said, tossing her purse on the floor.
I stepped through the door and into Bellie’s world. Around the open living room window a rainbow of pastel skipped in the breeze. A pink afghan stretched tight across a green plaid sofa. Pillows with purple, pink, and yellow ruffles covered what little plaid the afghan neglected. And everywhere perched collector’s plates decorated with garden cottages and white churches, and rigid figurines of sweet-faced children and painted birds. Above the couch hung a wicker birdcage stuffed with a menace of plastic flowers. The kitchen was immaculate. And all geese. The curtains were flocks of geese, likewise pot holders, dishtowels. A line of white geese, dainty blue ribbons around their necks, walked around a wallpaper border. A goosey cloth flowed down a round dining table, topped with a goose-painted empty vase.
Bellie waved her jeweled hand toward the kitchen table and disappeared into the narrow hall behind the living room. I sat in one of two folding chairs. She returned with a book-size mirror, etched with a prancing unicorn, dumped a little mountain of coke over the unicorn’s horns, and quickly laid out four narrow lines.
Bellie sat back. “Who you here with?”
“Fisherman I met up with. Thad Rouke.” She offered me a short pink straw, and I held my hair back with one hand while I sniffed.