Authors: Kristin Hannah
Leni followed her out onto the sagging deck and down the half-broken steps.
“Over there,” Mama said and pointed at a small wooden building surrounded by trees. A half-moon cutout on the door identified it.
“Holy shit,” Mama whispered.
“No pun intended,” Leni said. She leaned against her mother. She knew what Mama was feeling right now, so Leni had to be strong. That was how they did it, she and Mama. They took turns being strong. It was how they’d gotten through the war years.
“Thanks, baby girl. I needed that.” Mama put an arm around Leni, drew her close. “We’ll be okay, won’t we? We don’t need a TV. Or running water. Or electricity.” Her voice ended on a high, shrill note that sounded desperate.
“We’ll make the best of it,” Leni said, trying to sound certain instead of worried. “And he’ll be happy this time.”
“You think so?”
“I know so.”
The next morning, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Leni and Mama cleaned the cabin. They swept and scrubbed and washed. It turned out that the sink in the cabin was “dry” (there was no running water inside), so water had to be carried in by the bucketful from a stream not far away and boiled before they could drink it, cook with it, or bathe in it. There was no electricity. Propane-fueled lights swung from the rafters and sat on the plywood countertops. Beneath the house was a root cellar that was at least eight feet by ten feet, layered with sagging, dusty shelving and filled with empty, filthy mason jars and mildewed baskets. So they cleaned all of that, too, while Dad worked on clearing the driveway so they could drive the rest of their supplies onto the homestead.
By the end of the second day (which, by the way, lasted forever; the sun just kept shining and shining), it was ten
before they quit work.
Dad built a bonfire on the beach—their beach—and they sat on fallen logs around it, eating tuna fish sandwiches and drinking warm Coca-Colas. Dad found mussels and butter clams and showed them how to crack them open. They ate each of the slimy mollusks in a single gulp.
Night didn’t fall. Instead, the sky became a deep lavender-pink; there were no stars. Leni glanced across the dancing orange firelight, sparks spraying skyward, snapping like music, and saw her parents coiled together, Mama’s head on Dad’s shoulder, Dad’s hand laid lovingly on her thigh, a woolen blanket wrapped around them. Leni took a picture.
At the flash and the
of the Polaroid, Dad looked up at her and smiled. “We’re going to be happy here, Red. Can’t you feel it?”
“Yeah,” she said, and for the first time ever, she really believed it.
* * *
ENI WOKE TO THE SOUND
of someone—or some
—pounding on the cabin door. She scrambled out of her sleeping bag, shoved it aside, toppling her stack of books in her haste. Downstairs, she heard the rustle of beads and the pounding of footsteps as Mama and Dad ran for the door. Leni dressed quickly, grabbed her camera, and hurried down the ladder.
Large Marge stood in the yard with two other women; behind them, a rusted dirt bike lay on its side in the grass, and beside that was an all-terrain vehicle, loaded down with coiled chicken wire.
“Hullo, Allbrights!” Large Marge said brightly, waving her saucer-sized hand in greeting. “I brought some friends,” she said, indicating the two women she’d brought with her. One was a wood sprite, small enough to be a kid, with long gray Silly-String-like hair; the other was tall and thin. All three of them were dressed in flannel shirts and stained jeans that were tucked into brown rubber knee-high boots. Each carried a tool—a chain saw, an ax, a hatchet.
“We’ve come to offer some help getting started,” Large Marge said. “And we brought you a few things you’ll need.”
Leni saw her father frown. “You think we’re incompetent?”
“This is how we do it up here, Ernt,” Large Marge said. “Believe me, no matter how much you’ve read and studied, you can never quite prepare for your first Alaskan winter.”
The wood sprite came forward. She was thin and small, with a nose sharp enough to slice bread. Leather gloves stuck out of her shirt pocket. For as slight as she was, she exuded an air of competence. “I’m Natalie Watkins. Large Marge told me ya’all don’t know much about life up here. I was the same way ten years ago. I followed a man up here. Classic story. I lost the man and found a life. Got my own fishing boat now. So I get the dream that brings you here, but that’s not enough. You’re going to have to learn fast.” Natalie put on her yellow gloves. “I never found another man worth having. You know what they say about finding a man in Alaska—the odds are good, but the goods are odd.”
The taller woman had a beige braid that fell almost to her waist, and eyes so pale they seemed to take their color from the faded sky. “Welcome to Kaneq. I’m Geneva Walker. Gen. Genny. The Generator. I’ll answer to almost anything.” She smiled, revealing dimples. “My family is from Fairbanks, but I fell in love with my husband’s land, so here is where I’ve stayed. I’ve been here for twenty years.”
“You need a greenhouse and a cache at the very least,” Large Marge said. “Old Bo had big plans for this place when he bought it. But Bo went off to war … and he was a great one for getting a job half done.”
“A cash?” Dad said.
Large Marge nodded brusquely. “A cache is a small building on stilts. Your meat goes there, so the bears can’t get at it. This time of year, the bears are hungry.”
“Come on, Ernt,” Natalie said, reaching down for the chain saw at her feet. “I brought a portable mill. You cut down the trees and I’ll saw ’em into planks. First things first, righto?”
Dad went back into the cabin, put on his down vest, and headed into the forest with Natalie. Soon, Leni heard the whir of a chain saw and the thunking of an ax into wood.
“I’ll get started on the greenhouse,” Geneva said. “I imagine Bo left a tangle of PVC pipe somewhere…”
Large Marge walked up to Leni and Mama.
A breeze picked up; it turned cold in the blink of an eye. Mama crossed her arms. She had to be cold, standing there in a Grateful Dead T-shirt and bell-bottom jeans. A mosquito landed on her cheek. She slapped it away in a smear of blood.
“Our mosquitoes are bad,” Large Marge said. “I’ll bring you some repellant next time I come to visit.”
“How long have you lived here?” Mama asked.
“Ten of the best years of my life,” Large Marge answered. “Life in the bush is hard work, but you can’t beat the taste of salmon you caught in the morning, drizzled with butter you churned from your own fresh cream. Up here, there’s no one to tell you what to do or how to do it. We each survive our own way. If you’re tough enough, it’s heaven on earth.”
Leni stared up at the big, rough-looking woman in a kind of awe. She’d never seen a woman so tall or strong-looking. Large Marge looked like she could fell a full-grown cedar tree and sling it over her shoulder and keep going.
“We needed a fresh start,” Mama said, surprising Leni. It was the kind of rock-bottom truth Mama tended to avoid.
“He was in ’Nam?”
“POW. How did you know?”
“He has the look. And, well … Bo left you this place.” Large Marge glanced left, to where Dad and Natalie were cutting down trees. “Is he mean?”
“N-no,” Mama said. “Of course not.”
“He hasn’t had one since we headed north.”
“You’re an optimist,” Large Marge said. “That’ll be good for a start. Well. You’d best change your shirt, Cora. The bugs are going to go mad for all that bare white skin.”
Mama nodded and turned back for the cabin.
“And you,” Large Marge said. “What’s your story, missy?”
“I don’t have a story.”
“Everyone has a story. Maybe yours just starts up here.”
“What can you do?”
Leni shrugged. “I read and take pictures.” She indicated the camera that hung around her neck. “Not much that will do us any good.”
“Then you’ll learn,” Large Marge said. She moved closer, leaned down to whisper conspiratorially into Leni’s ear. “This place is magic, kiddo. You just have to open yourself up to it. You’ll see what I mean. But it’s treacherous, too, and don’t you forget that. I think it was Jack London who said there were a thousand ways to die in Alaska. Be on the alert.”
“Where will it come from? The weather? Bears? Wolves? What else?”
Large Marge glanced across the yard again to where Dad and Natalie were felling trees. “It can come from anywhere. The weather and the isolation makes some people crazy.”
Before Leni could ask another question, Mama came back, dressed for work in jeans and a sweatshirt.
“Cora, can you make coffee?” Large Marge asked.
Mama laughed and hip-bumped Leni. “Well, now, Large Marge, it seems you’ve found the one thing I
* * *
and Geneva worked all day alongside Leni and her parents. The Alaskans labored in silence, communicating with grunts and nods and pointed fingers. Natalie put a chain saw in a cage thing and milled the big logs Dad had cut down into boards all by herself. Each fallen tree revealed another slice of sunlight.
Geneva taught Leni how to saw wood and hammer nails and build raised vegetable beds. Together they started the PVC pipe-and-plank structure that would become a greenhouse. Leni helped Geneva carry a huge, heavy
roll of plastic sheeting that they found in the broken-down chicken coop. They dropped it onto the ground.
“Sheesh,” Leni said. She was breathing hard. Sweat sheened her forehead and made her frizzy hair hang limply on either side of her flushed face. But the skeleton of a garden gave her a sense of pride, of purpose. She actually looked forward to planting the vegetables that would be their food.
As they worked, Geneva talked about what vegetables to grow and how to harvest them and how important they would be when winter came.
Winter was a word these Alaskans said a lot. It might be only May, almost summer, but the Alaskans were already focused on winter.
“Take a break, kiddo,” Geneva finally said, pushing to her feet. “I need to use the outhouse.”
Leni staggered out of the greenhouse shell and found her mother standing alone, a cigarette in one hand, a cup of coffee in the other.
“I feel like we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole,” Mama said. Beside her, the unsteady card table from the cabin held the remnants of lunch—Mama had made a stack of pan biscuits and fried up some bologna.
The air smelled of wood smoke and cigarette smoke and fresh-cut wood. It sounded of chain saws whirring, boards thumping onto piles, nails being hammered.
Leni saw Large Marge walking toward them. She looked tired and sweaty, but was smiling. “I don’t suppose I could have a sip of that coffee?”
Mama handed Large Marge her cup.
The three of them stood there, gazing out at the homestead that was changing before their eyes.
“Your Ernt is a good worker,” Large Marge said. “He’s got some skills. Said his dad was a rancher.”
“Uh-huh,” Mama said. “Montana.”
“That’s good news. I can sell you a breeding pair of goats as soon as you get the pens repaired. I’ll give you a good price. They’ll be good for milk and cheese. And you can learn a shitload from
Mother Earth News
magazine. I’ll bring you over a stack.”
“Thank you,” Mama said.
“Geneva said Leni was a joy to work with. That’s good.” She patted Leni so hard she stumbled forward. “But, Cora, I’ve looked through your supplies. I hope you don’t mind. You don’t have nearly enough. How are your finances?”
“Things are tight.”
Large Marge nodded. Her face settled into grim lines. “Can you shoot?”
Large Marge didn’t smile. “I mean it, Cora. Can you shoot?”
?” Mama asked.
“Yeah. A gun,” Large Marge said.
Mama’s laughter died. “No.” She stubbed out her cigarette on a rock.
“Well. You aren’t the first cheechakos to come up here with a dream and a poor plan.”
“Cheechako?” Leni asked.
“Tenderfoot. Alaska isn’t about who you were when you headed this way. It’s about who you become. You are out here in the wild, girls. That isn’t some fable or fairy tale. It’s real. Hard. Winter will be here soon, and believe me, it’s not like any winter you’ve ever experienced. It will cull the herd, and fast. You need to know how to survive. You need to know how to shoot and kill to feed yourselves and keep yourselves safe. You are not the top of the food chain here.”
Natalie and Dad walked toward them. Natalie was carrying the chain saw and wiping her sweaty forehead with a bunched-up bandanna. She was such a small woman, barely taller than Leni; it seemed impossible that she could carry that heavy chain saw around.
At Mama’s side, she stopped, rested the rounded tip of the chain saw on the toe of her rubber boot. “Well. I got to feed my animals. I gave Ernt a good drawing for the cache.”
Geneva strode toward them. Black dirt colored her hair, her face, splattered across her shirtfront. “Leni has the right work attitude. Good for you, parents.”
Dad laid an arm along Mama’s shoulders. “I can’t thank you ladies enough,” he said.
“Yes. Your help means the world to us,” Mama said.
Natalie’s smile gave her an elfin look. “Our pleasure, Cora. You remember. Tonight you lock your door when you go to bed. Don’t come out till morning. If you need a chamber pot, get one from Large Marge at the Trading Post.”
Leni knew her mouth gaped just a little. They wanted her to pee in a
“Bears are dangerous this time of year. Black bears especially. They’ll attack sometimes just ’cause they can,” Large Marge said. “And there are wolves and moose and God knows what else.” She took the chain saw from Natalie and slung it over her shoulder as if it were a stick of balsam wood. “There’s no police up here and no telephone except in town, so Ernt, you teach your women to shoot, and do it fast. I’ll give you a list of the minimum supplies you’ll need before September. You’ll need to bag a moose for sure this fall. It’s better to shoot ’em in season, but … you know, what matters is meat in the freezer.”
“We don’t have a freezer,” Leni pointed out.
The women laughed at that, for some reason.
Dad nodded solemnly. “Gotcha.”
“Okay. See you later,” the women said in unison. Waving, they walked toward their vehicles and mounted up, and then drove down the trail that led out to the main road. In moments they were gone.
In the silence that followed, a cold breeze ruffled the treetops above them. An eagle flew overhead, a huge silver fish struggling in its talons’ grip. Leni saw a dog collar hanging from the top branches of an evergreen. An eagle must have picked up a small dog and carried it away. Could an eagle carry off a girl who was skinny as a beanpole?