When the stove has been cold for two days, and the young woman is lying beside the body of her husband, her arms chained to the bedframe, her own death approaching, her memories will melt into dreams and her dreams will pass from her empty stomach to her parched throat to the corners of her mind she had lost long before. But before that, she will think of the ship that brought her north, how it threaded narrow passages between islands where sheer granite cliffs rose out of the water, so close she was sure she could touch them; how the smooth, black bodies of whales had surfaced and disappeared; how glaciers swept down the mountains, the ice cracked with a blue brighter than anything she had ever seen.
As the steamer pulls into the port of Seward, the young woman stands at the railing and looks down to the dock, where a small crowd has gathered to greet the passengers. She wonders which one is her husband. She keeps her eyes high, away from their faces, choosing instead to see the tops of hats and the town beyond the harbor, fog clinging to the hillside behind it. She touches ground and moves forward as if she has somewhere to go. Then a voice says her name and she turns. She realizes that she has no image in her mind against which to compare the man who stands before her. How strange, she thinks, that he has a face, a body.
He had sent a photograph, of course, tucked in the folds of a letter she opened outside the post office. But as soon as her fingers felt the stiff, glossed square among the thin pages, she released it from her hand and watched it spin through the air and into the gutter, where it was carried, she imagined, into Puget Sound. She didn’t care what he looked like, so long as he could take her away. He sent the ticket and she boarded the ship, and there, suspended above the water, the motion both constant and imperceptible, came the relief she craved. She felt far from her family in Michigan, far from Seattle—from the nuns and the laundry and the child who still existed there, though out of her reach. It wasn’t until the ship entered Resurrection Bay and the port came into sight that she allowed herself to consider the truth of it—that she was not just leaving a place, but arriving in another.
The man holds his hat to his chest. His hair is gray, but for a sweep of black behind each ear, and his skin has the scrapped paleness of a fresh and difficult shave. She figures him for twice her age, possibly closer to three. He speaks, but she doesn’t catch the words; the earth beneath her is moving. She looks down, but finds only the still hem of her skirt and the toes of her boots. My legs, she says. He assures her the feeling will pass, picks up her case and leads her away from the water.
He leads her into the dirt street, past flat-faced clapboard buildings, to the hotel where he’s taken a room. He tells her that the train will go in the morning. She nods though she had not been aware of a train ride. Since they began corresponding, she had thought of nothing but boarding the ship, and while on board the ship, she had thought of nothing but what was just before her—the vast stretch of the ocean, the curving western horizon, those skinny passages and looming cliffs, those breaching whale backs and alien rivers of ice.
They sit opposite each other in the dim hotel lounge. The man orders a beer and she asks for sherry, though she has never taken a drink before. A large brown bear stands on its hind legs and stares at them from the corner of the room. Next to it, a player piano sits silently, waiting to be animated. The man asks about the voyage and she offers the briefest of responses. Fine, lovely. To say any more, to put words to the things she had seen and set them loose from her body, would be to lose those things entirely. She asks where the train will take them and he says north, off the peninsula and inland, more than two hundred miles in all. She nods. The sea is just visible through the window behind him. She feels little looking at him—neither the stirring of affection, nor fear at its absence. She is aware of how little she feels and decides it is something to be grateful for. It is as if the child, when it was pulled out of her—chalky pink and screaming—severed some necessary connection between her mind and her heart.
After the birth, she had begged the doctor for ether, morphine, anything that might wipe her mind clean. She left the hospital two days later, shrunken, heavy. As she walked home along the shipyards on Salmon Bay, the sun broke free from the clouds, hurled itself against the water, and exploded into a thousand tiny shards of light. She wished to disappear among them.
In the four days that it takes her to die, she will see this image three times. First, it will arrive as it happened—a proper memory—and she will think of the walk from the shipyard back to the home where the other girls waited—first to give birth, and then for their bodies to forget they had. She’ll remember how difficult the incline up Market Street had been, how she was certain that the stitches between her legs were tearing. The second time, it will appear on the interior of her eyelids, an image with no memory attached: the sun as breaking glass. Next, she will see that same sun on the ceiling of the cabin, ready to crash against the bed. Finally, she will realize happily that it has—that she is a shard of light on the water.
She returned to the home—the nuns and the laundry—where everything seemed to transpire as if from behind fogged glass; she knew only that she wanted to go far away and to be quiet. It wasn’t long before she found the newspaper tucked into one of the laundry hampers, already open to the classifieds page. Dependable man with productive gold claim seeks homestead wife. Alaska.
The drinks arrive and they make awkward smiles at each other between frequent sips. He begins to make reference to places as if she is already familiar with them—the claim, the homestead, the trapline, Cache Creek, Talkeetna. She tries to recall the details of his letters, but her memory provides nothing. She remembers walking to collect the letters—wary of the nuns, she had given a general delivery address—and sitting on a bench outside the post office, writing her responses against the cover of a Bible taken from the dormitory, but she can recall neither what he wrote nor what she replied. It’s like a nightmare from school days: she sits in front of an exam with simple questions but cannot answer them, as if she has no grasp of her own mind, no access to its contents. The sherry softens the edges of her vision and she lets herself sink back into the cushion of the armchair. She nods occasionally as if listening.
A second glass appears in the man’s hand and he flips the edge of the carpet up with the toe of his boot. Will it do? he asks. She replies that it will, and buoyed, the man takes the beer down in one draw and goes in search of a minister, pausing at the door to ask if she has a denominational preference. She shakes her head; it hardly seems to matter now.
What seems like moments later, they are walking through town towards a church with freshly painted red shingles, blindingly bright against the evergreen forest behind it. Moments later, they are married. When the minister tells them to kiss, the man who is now her husband looks at her sheepishly and pecks her cheek.
At the hotel, the clerk congratulates them and serves them beefsteak and claret for the occasion. As they saw at the meat, the man—her husband—tells her that cows are not common for eating in Alaska. He says this boatmeat is a fancy thing, but a moose steak doesn’t taste so different.
Full of the beef and glassy-eyed from the wine, she follows him upstairs, draws the curtain to block the late-setting sun, and lets him do his business on top of her. It is not a feeling she is accustomed to, exactly, but one she finds tolerable in the same way walking a distance with a heavy sack is tolerable, so long as your mind has somewhere to go. On the occasions when the father of her child had done the same thing, he had whispered her name aloud over and over, lulling her away from the discomfort and from the worry of sin and into dreams of a promised future. Here in the hotel room, there is a crack in the plaster of the ceiling that she follows from end to end and back again, thinking of the fissures in the glaciers, of that unearthly blue.
The train ride takes two days. It pulls them through the dense forest of the peninsula and around Turnagain Arm, where the tracks are so close to the water, she imagines she is still onboard the ship.
In the four days it takes her to die, songs will come into her head—some from childhood, some from church, some that she does not recognize. Certain phrases too will come to her, and she will repeat them on a loop as if they were songs. Turnagain, turnagain, turnagain arm, she will say aloud into the dark morning. Turnagain turnagain turnagain arm.
Soon, the train pulls them away from the coast and the constant, calming churn of those vast waters are lost to her. When the Susitna River appears beside them, it seems made of a different element entirely. He points to a bear lumbering along the tracks, a cub loping behind. A bald eagle feeds on the carcass of some land-bound creature, and she notices the ribs, still curving out from the spine, protecting innards already stolen. Scavengers, he says, trash birds.
He speaks of practical matters. The logistics of travel, plans for the remainder of summer, plans for the winter. Eventually, she is able to make some order of what he says, to piece together the information that must have been in the letters. The homestead is a dozen miles north of town and the gold claim is forty-five miles to the west. Until the ground freezes, there is still work to be done at the claim, and the choice is hers, he says, whether to stay at the homestead alone or come with him. Company, he says, but rougher living.
In Talkeetna, they get off the train and walk down the muddy main street. He points to the trading post, to the roadhouse, to a bar called The Bucket of Blood. He buys her a wool shirt and pants, suitable boots. A man leaving the bar calls out to her husband, who ya got there? He shouts back, a wife! The volume alarms her.
In her head, it will be a refrain: bucket-of-blood-a-wife, bucket-of-blood-a-wife, bucket-of-blood-a-wife.
The next day, they catch the train again and travel over the river and a slough and on for a dozen miles. The train slows to a stop, the man nods to her, and they disembark. There is nothing in sight but trees and the river. Her suitcase in hand, he starts into the woods, and after watching the train disappear, she follows him.
Three miles walk and there is a clearing and a cabin of freshly peeled logs. Behind it is a cache on tin-covered stilts, and farther back, the privy. He continues into the house, but she stops a ways short. The birch trees edging the woods are spotted with dark knots, like so many unblinking eyes. A breeze comes down through the canopy; aspen leaves shiver and the hair on her arms stands. Though the woods are loud with the sound of birds and insects, they are free of the sound of people. She decides that she will stay, instead of going with him to the claim.
The next day, she wakes to the smell of coffee. He brings her a cup in bed and she tells him of her decision. He nails the lid of a biscuit tin to a tree and she shoots at it every day until she hits the center enough times to prove it wasn’t an accident. She learns the sourdough and tries to understand the minute adjustments required to heat the stovetop versus the oven. They walk through the woods and he points to natural landmarks—a boulder cleaved like a peach, a series of snags—but it all looks the same to her. She promises not to get herself lost. At night, he rolls on top of her and she lives in the light show behind her eyelids until he’s finished.
Then, one day, he leaves, and for a time, the young woman lives alone in the woods, surrounded by the birch and spruce and cottonwood trees. She gives up on the finicky oven and eats pancakes instead of bread. She stops winding the clock and makes guesses at the time based on the slice of sunlight on her pillow. Every time she ventures into the woods, she is certain she won’t find her way back. Still, she goes, moving exactly as she pleases, turning in new directions when she wants to, unworried about where they will take her. She expects that God will punish her for all she has done; she is not trying to stop him. Each time the roof of the cache appears through the trees, she is surprised.
She doesn’t know what creatures make the sounds around her, so she assigns them people’s names. The trilling call of a Marjorie, the scratch of a Harold, the wail of a lonely Winnie. The first time she comes across a bear, it frightens and lumbers quickly away from her, though she finds herself wishing it back. Sitting on the bank of the river one day, she wonders if a bullet can skip the surface of the water like a stone. She shoots and shoots and then a salmon surfaces, bleeding from a hole in its silver belly. She wades into the river, boots and all, but the current pulls the fish downstream. The water is unbearably cold but she stays until she can no longer see the fish. When it’s out of sight, the cold is tolerable because she can no longer feel her legs. She stays a while longer. That evening, she does not clean the rifle as her husband taught her. She stops carrying it altogether. Some days, after waking and eating breakfast, she decides to return to bed and spends the rest of the day suspended between sleep and wakefulness, unsure of when she has crossed from one to the other.
On the fourth day after her husband dies, she will be very close to death herself. She will no longer be able to think in words, but her body will summon that in-between sleep and awake feeling and will remember being suspended in amniotic fluid, listening to the squeeze of her mother’s heart and the sluice of her stomach.
The extra hours of daylight disappear, the cottonwoods and birch go yellow and red, then bare, and one day, she hears an unfamiliar commotion in the woods, then men’s voices and there is her husband. He and another man are on horseback, dragging packed sleds. She watches through the window as they unload mining supplies, sacks of flour and sugar and potatoes, cans of coffee. Her husband moves stiffly, canted slightly to the left. The man with the horses is paid and the woman is left with her husband. The black hair behind his ears has gone. She asks if he isn’t well but he waves the question away. A small accident, he says, nothing. He digs through a pack and produces three envelopes. A gift, he says. They’re full of seeds: cabbage, pumpkin, potato.
That night, the woman wakes with a peculiar feeling, like there are a thousand shards of glass biting her face. She opens her eyes and finds herself on the floor, along the threshold of the door. A slivered stream of cold air passes beneath it. She returns to bed, next to her sleeping husband. The next morning, she can still summon that cold, sharp feeling.
In the weeks that follow, her husband fells a tree at the edge of the yard, shoots a caribou, and repairs traps for the coming season. He favors his right side, but his work seems undiminished, and he says nothing of it. She stays by the cabin; she washes, she attempts bread, biscuits. At night, she finds herself by the door again, stretched along it, or curled around the mat. She finds herself kneeling at the window, with her head resting on the sill and her chin brushing the glass. When she returns to bed, she hears a whistle in his breath.
One night, she wakes to the sound of her husband’s voice. What are you doing out here? he asks. She opens her eyes to a cloudless sky punctured by stars and the thinnest crescent of moon she has ever seen. She thinks the sky is very bright for such a small sliver. Look at that, she says. You let out all the heat, he says. She looks at her husband’s face. His brow and cheeks are bleached by the light but his eyes are sunk so far back in shadow they seem not to be there at all. Behind him, the trees are morphing, the birch trunks shifting from white to silver to blue. She wonders how long she has been standing here, and how long her husband has been living without eyes in his head, and why she’s never seen the woods change color before.
She will dream of a thousand things, of everything good and strange she has ever seen. The most perfect orange egg yolk. The gold of a sturgeon’s eye. That moon, skinny as the ring around a tick bite.
Soon, the snow arrives. She wakes to his voice again, urgent this time. What are you doing out here? She’s at the edge of the clearing, barefoot in the snow. She tells him the truth: she doesn’t know. She sleepwalks the next night, too, and the night after that. He is worried she’ll freeze to death. He ties a bell to her ankle, but she removes it in her sleep. He ties one of her wrists to the bed frame with twine, but she loosens the knot with the other hand and slips out. That night she wakes upside down, slung over his shoulder. In bed, he touches her cheek. Where are you trying to go? he whispers. She wants to tell him to leave her be, that some things can’t be prevented, but something in his face stops her.
The next day, she agrees to the chain. He wraps it around her wrist, secures it to the bed with a lock, and puts the key across the room. It works—she doesn’t get out that night, but in the morning her forearm is clawed bloody. That night, she holds her wrists together while he wraps them in bearskin, then loops them both with steel.
The days shrink and the nights grow and the snow arrives in earnest. The man should be gone setting his trapline, and though she tells him to leave her, he won’t. At night, he locks her beside him and in the morning, she wakes sore from pulling at the chains, but warm, alive. He touches her hair and lets her go.
The light cuts across her pillow later each day. She sits at the window for long stretches; the draft that comes through it is cold enough to ache the bones of her face. He shovels the path to the privy, even when it hasn’t snowed, splits kindling though there is plenty inside.
One night, three months after his return, there is a cold suck of air in the room; it feels as if the door is open. She blinks sight back into her eyes and looks across the room but finds the door closed. Through the window, she sees a thin green light shivering across the sky. She tries to gather the blankets around herself against the chill and it is then she notices the deep stillness of her husband’s body. She reaches for him but her arm is jerked back by the chains. She slides a foot through the sheets and finds his ankle. His skin is cool. The cold pull of air, she realizes, comes from him, as if his body is a door to some other outside. She reaches, tries to move towards it, but can’t.
She will watch the green light waving above the naked tree branches and as she falls asleep, the light will turn ice blue. It will fill every window of the cabin and when she walks outside, she’ll be on a glacier wide as the ocean.
The cabin shifts against the cold night and she thinks of the snow piled on the roof. Soon, the next day, perhaps, it will slide off and block the windows, and then, the daylight won’t reach them until it is warm enough for the snow to melt.
She wonders how long it will take.