Authors: David Vann
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in the USA by HarperCollins 2011
First published in Great Britain in Penguin Books 2011
Copyright © David Vann, 2011
The moral right of the author has been asserted
This novel is a work of fiction. Any references to real people, events, organizations or locales are intended only to give the fiction a sense of reality and authenticity, and are used fictitiously. All other names, characters and places, and all dialogue and incidents portrayed in this book are the product of the author’s imagination
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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
My mother was not real. She was an early dream, a hope. She was a place. Snowy, like here, and cold. A wooden house on a hill above a river. An overcast day, the old white paint of the buildings made brighter somehow by the trapped light, and I was coming home from school. Ten years old, walking by myself, walking through dirty patches of snow in the yard, walking up to the narrow porch. I can’t remember how my thoughts went then, can’t remember who I was or what I felt like. All of that is gone, erased. I opened our front door and found my mother hanging from the rafters. I’m sorry, I said, and I stepped back and closed the door. I was outside on the porch again.
You said that? Rhoda asked. You said you were sorry?
It was long ago, Irene said. And it was something I couldn’t see even at the time, so I can’t see it now. I don’t know what she looked like hanging there. I don’t remember any of it, only that it was.
Rhoda scooted closer on the couch and put her arm around her mother, pulled her close. They both looked at the fire. A metal screen in front, small hexagons, and the longer Rhoda looked, the more these hexagons seemed like the back wall of the fireplace, made golden by flame. As if the back wall, black with soot, could be revealed or transmuted by fire. Then her eyes would shift and it would be only a screen again. I wish I had known her, Rhoda said.
Me too, Irene said. She patted Rhoda’s knee. I need to get to sleep. Busy day tomorrow.
I’ll miss this place.
It was a good home. But your father wants to leave me, and the first step is to make us move out to that island. To make it seem he gave it a try.
That’s not true, Mom.
We all have rules, Rhoda. And your father’s main rule is that he can never seem like the bad guy.
He loves you, Mom.
Irene stood and hugged her daughter. Goodnight, Rhoda.
In the morning, Irene carried her end of log after log, from the truck to the boat. These are never going to fit together, she said to her husband, Gary.
I’ll have to plane them down a bit, he said, tight-lipped.
Thanks, Gary said. He already had that grim, worried look that accompanied all his impossible projects.
Why not build a cabin with boards? Irene asked. Why does it have to be a log cabin?
But Gary wasn’t answering.
Suit yourself, she said. But these aren’t even logs. None of them is bigger than six inches. It’s going to look like a hovel made out of sticks.
They were at the upper campground on Skilak Lake, the water a pale jade green from glacial runoff. Flaky from silt, and because of its depth, never warmed much, even in late summer. The wind across it chill and constant, and the mountains rising from its eastern shore still had pockets of snow. From their tops, Irene had often seen, on clear days, the white volcanic peaks of Mount Redoubt and Mount Iliamna across the Cook Inlet and, in the foreground, the broad pan of the Kenai Peninsula: spongy green and red-purple moss, the stunted trees rimming wetlands and smaller lakes, and the one highway snaking silver in sunlight as a river. Mostly public land. Their house and their son Mark’s house the only buildings along the shore of Skilak, and even they were tucked back into trees so the lake still could seem prehistoric, wild. But it wasn’t enough to be on the shore. They were moving out, now, to Caribou Island.
Gary had backed his pickup close to where the boat sat on the beach with an open bow, a ramp for loading cargo. With each log, he stepped onto the boat and walked its length. A wobbly walk, because the stern was in the water and bobbing.
Lincoln logs, Irene said.
I’ve heard about enough, Gary said.
Gary pulled another small log. Irene took her end. The sky darkened a bit, and the water went from light jade to a blue-gray. Irene looked up toward the mountain and could see one flank whited. Rain, she said. Coming this way.
We’ll just keep loading, Gary said. Put on your jacket if you want.
Gary wearing a flannel work shirt, long-sleeved, over his T-shirt. Jeans and boots. His uniform. He looked like a younger man, still fit for his mid-fifties. Irene still liked how he looked. Unshaven, unshowered at the moment, but real.
Shouldn’t take much longer, Gary said.
They were going to build their cabin from scratch. No foundation, even. And no plans, no experience, no permits, no advice welcome. Gary wanted to just do it, as if the two of them were the first to come upon this wilderness.
So they kept loading, and the rain came toward them a white shadow over the water. A kind of curtain, the squall line, but the first drops and wind always hit just before, invisible, working ahead of what she could see, and this always came as a surprise to Irene. Those last moments taken away. And then the wind kicked up, the squall line hit, and the drops came down large and heavy, insistent.
Irene grabbed her end of another log, walked toward the boat with her face turned away from the wind. The rain blowing sideways now, hitting hard. She wore no hat, no gloves. Her hair matting, drips off her nose, and she felt that first chill as the rain soaked through her shirt to her arms, one shoulder, her upper back and neck. She hunched away from it as she walked, placed her log, and then walked back hunched the other way, her other side soaking through now, and she shivered.
Gary walking ahead of her, hunched also, his upper body turned away from the rain as if it wanted to disobey his legs, take off in its own direction. He grabbed the end of another log, pulled it out, stepping backward, and then the rain hit harder. The wind gusted, and the air was filled with water, white even in close. The lake disappeared, the waves gone, the transition to shore become speculative. Irene grabbed the log and followed Gary into oblivion.
The wind and rain formed a roar, against which Irene could hear no other sound. She walked mute, found the bow, placed her log, turned and walked back, no longer hunched. There was no dry part left to save. She was soaked through.
Gary walked past her a kind of bird man, his arms curved out like wings first opening. Trying to keep his wet shirt away from his skin? Or some instinctive first response to battle, readying his arms? When he stopped at the truck bed, water streamed off the end of his nose. His eyes hard and small, focused.
Irene moved in close. Should we stop? she yelled over the roar.
We have to get this load out to the island, he yelled back, and then he pulled another log, so Irene followed, though she knew she was being punished. Gary could never do this directly. He relied on the rain, the wind, the apparent necessity of the project. It would be a day of punishment. He would follow it, extend it for hours, drive them on, a grim determination, like fate. A form of pleasure to him.
Irene followed because once she had endured she could punish. Her turn would come. And this is what they had done to each other for decades now, irresistibly. Fine, she would think. Fine. And that meant, just wait.
Another half an hour of loading logs in the rain. Irene was going to get sick from this, chilled through. They should have been wearing rain gear, which they had in the cab of the truck, but their stubbornness toward each other had prevented that. If she had gone for her jacket when Gary suggested it, that would have interrupted the work, slowed them down, and it would have been noted, held against her, a small shake of the head, perhaps even a sigh, but removed by long enough he could pretend it wasn’t about that. Above all else, Gary was an impatient man: impatient with the larger shape of his life, with who he was and what he’d done and become, impatient with his wife and children, and then, of course, impatient with all the little things, any action not done correctly, any moment of weather that was uncooperative. A general and abiding impatience she had lived in for over thirty years, an element she had breathed.
The last log loaded, finally, and Gary and Irene swung the bow ramp into place. It was not heavy, not reassuring. Black rubber where it met the side plates of the boat, forming a seal. This would be their only way back and forth from the island.
I’ll park the truck, Gary said, and stomped off through the rocks. The rain still coming down, though not as blown now. Enough visibility to know direction, though not enough to see the island from here, a couple miles out. Irene wondered what would happen when they were in the middle. Would they see any of the shore, or only white all around them? No GPS on the boat, no radar, no depth finder. It’s a lake, Gary had said at the dealership. It’s only a lake.
There’s water in the boat, Irene said when Gary returned. It was pooling under the logs, gathered especially in the stern, almost a foot deep from all the rain.
We’ll take care of it once we’re out, Gary said. I don’t want to use the battery for the bilge pump without the engine on.
So what’s the plan? Irene asked. She didn’t know how they would push the boat off the beach, weighed down with the logs.
You know, I’m not the only one who wanted this, Gary said. It’s not just my plan. It’s our plan.
This was a lie, but too big a lie to address right here, right now, in the rain. Fine, Irene said. How do we get the boat off the beach?
Gary looked at the boat for a few moments. Then he bent down and gave the bow a push. It didn’t budge.
The front half of the boat was on land, and Irene was guessing that meant hundreds of pounds at this point, fully loaded. Gary hadn’t thought of this, obviously. He was making it up as he went along.
Gary walked around to one side and then the other. He climbed over logs to the stern, to the outboard engine, leaned against this and pushed hard, trying to rock the boat, but it might as well have been made of lead. No movement whatsoever.
So Gary crawled forward, hopped ashore, looked at the boat for a while. Help me push, he finally said. Irene lined up beside him, he counted one, two, three, and they both pushed at the bow. Their feet slipped in the black pebbles, but no other movement.
It can never be easy, Gary said. Not a single thing. It can never just work out.
As if to prove what he was saying, the rain came down heavier again, the wind increasing, cold off the glacier. If you wanted to be a fool and test the limits of how bad things could get, this was a good place for it. Irene knew Gary wouldn’t appreciate any comments, though. She tried to be supportive. Maybe we could come back tomorrow, she said. The weather’s supposed to improve a bit. We could unload and push it out, then load again.
No, Gary said. I don’t feel like doing it tomorrow. I’m taking this load out today.
Irene held her tongue.
Gary stomped off to the truck. Irene stood in the rain, soaked and wanting to be warm and dry. Their house very close, a few minutes away. Hot bath, start a fire.
Gary drove the truck onto the beach, curving up toward the trees, then down to the boat until he had the bumper close to the bow. Let me know how close, he yelled out the window.
So Irene walked over and told him, and he eased forward until the bumper was touching.
Okay, Irene said.
Gary gave it a little gas, and pebbles flew out behind his rear wheels. The boat didn’t budge. He shifted to low four-wheel drive, gave it more gas, all four tires digging in, pebbles slamming the underside of the truck body. The boat started to slip, then went back fast into the water, drifting away in a curve.
Grab the bow line! Gary yelled out his window. Irene rushed forward to grab the line that was loose on the beach. She caught it and dug in her heels, lay back on the beach pulling hard until the pressure eased. Then she just lay there, looking up into the dark white sky. She could see the rain as streaks before it hit her face. No gloves, her hands cold and the nylon line rough. The pebbles and larger stones hard against the back of her head. Her clothing a wet and cold outer shell.
She heard Gary drive the truck up to the parking area, and then heard his boots on the way back, large determined strides.
Okay, he said, standing over her. Let’s go.
What she wished was that he would just lie down beside her. The two of them on this beach. They would give up, let the rope go, let the boat drift away, forget about the cabin, forget about all that hadn’t gone right over the years and just go back to their house and warm up and start over. It didn’t seem impossible. If they both decided to do it, they could.
But instead, they walked into the cold water, the waves breaking over their boots up to their knees, and climbed into the boat. Irene grabbed on to the logs and swung her legs in, wondering why she was doing this. The momentum of who she had become with Gary, the momentum of who she had become in Alaska, the momentum that made it somehow impossible to just stop right now and go back to the house. How had that happened?
Gary at the motor squeezed the bulb for the gas line, pulled the choke out, pulled back hard on the starter cord. And the engine caught right away, ran smooth, spit out its stream of cooling water and not as much smoke as Irene was used to. A four-stroke, a nice engine, ridiculously expensive, but at least it was reliable. The last thing she wanted was to be adrift in a storm in the middle of the lake.
Gary had the bilge pump running, a thick stream of water over the side, and all seemed briefly manageable. Then Irene saw the bend in the bow. From where Gary had pushed with the truck, the front of the boat had a bend to it. Not extreme, but Irene shifted forward to examine the seal where the gate met side plate, and she could see a trickle of water coming in. They were loaded down so heavy, part of the ramp was underwater.
Gary, she said, but he was already backing away in a half-circle, then shifting the engine into forward. He was focused, not paying any attention to her. Gary! she yelled out, and waved an arm.
He shifted into neutral and came forward to look. He made a growling sound, his teeth clamped tight. But then he returned to the engine and put it in gear. Not a word, no discussion of whether they should go on or have it repaired first.
Gary didn’t go fast, no more than five or ten miles per hour, but this was straight into wind waves with a flat front, and every wave was a hard blast of spray that drenched them entirely.