Where We Went and What We Did There

JR Fenn

We arrive from the south. We come to the end of a peninsula on a glacial bay at the edge of the western shore. We come for the open land, for the empty sea that stretches to Kamchatka and Japan. We come to forget we ever lived any other way, to see the red curtains ripple through the sky, to fight the forest fires deep in the dead spruce woods. We come for a summer and stay for years. We come for years and stay for the rest of our lives, and our children after us, and theirs after them.

We disappear into the wilderness, into tiny cabins and domes and homesteads. We disappear onto the sea, into boats with hulls made into houses where the tides rock us asleep. We build our retirement homes on islands where we are the sole inhabitants, where we go to spend weekends with our old friends and where we go to die. We disperse into lands without roads, unmarked on maps, our places only found on loam paths by those who know the way. We disappear into the town, along its quiet streets where the air blows fresh and cold from the sea.

We were strong before we came, and we grow stronger here. Our bodies grow larger and sturdier, our voices grow louder and deeper, our gazes grow steady over the ocean that tilts and smokes around us, over chunks of ice larger than houses that cleave off glacial cliffs into the sea, over the snow that rushes down hillsides to drown us. Our strength helps us disappear with the ice and the snow and the streams that disappear around us, gone to places no one has ever seen. We grow less conscious of ourselves. The land brims with all of us.

We drive along the water on a great sand spit that stretches seven miles into the sea. At high tide, the ocean laps at the banks of the road. At low tide, the sand flats stretch away to either side. Ahead, across the bay, a crescent of mountains rises. The sandbar opens wider and wider. We drive past curio shops, fishing charters, a hotel. At the end, old pilings rise up out of the sand. On top of each piling huddles an eagle. The wind ruffles their feathers. We feed them bread. They fight for the scraps with vulture claws.

The wild eagles circle overhead, above the inland trees. We see their black silhouettes hunch in their nests against the blue white skies. The nests weigh more than the cars we drive. In the summer, the eagles hunt and grow strong; the land yields up more food than they can devour. In the winter the snow covers the ground. The eagles circle, hungry, above. We call our cats inside. The eagles take them. The eagles hover at the horizon. We keep our children inside and watch the sky. The eagles take the ones who stray from our houses without us.
At night, the moose drift through our yards to eat bark. They appear too late from the darkness before our cars. We kill them and they kill us. We eat their meat. The bears eat our garbage. We fly into the backcountry to see the bears, unspoiled by us, eat salmon. We step into the sea from small floatplanes, wade to shore in waders, hide behind a hill. The grizzlies dip their paws in the water. They pin the fish against the rock and rip its belly with their teeth until blood pours down from their mouths to the river.

We come to find something and we don’t know what it is. We leave you behind in the places we come from. We leave you in your glossy cars that trickle through hive cities wrapped in smog. We leave you in suburbs that spill in viral tracts across the farmland. We leave you lost in cavernous stores and recycled air. We leave you confused about where we have gone. You have only seen where we have gone on television. You become what we would have become: young professionals, drug addicts, divorcées, drunks. Soon, we seldom write and visit even less.

We work in the spruce forests, where we cut trees and clear brush. We work in the coastal sea, where we seign for silver fish with nets. We work in the deep sea, where we haul pots packed with crabs up to the deck. We work in oyster bays, where we seed the sea with infant shells. We work in fish plants, hands numbed by knives. We work even when the power’s not working. We work for others; we work for ourselves. We work for our entire lives. Our children work for their entire lives, and their children after them.

We work until our clothes are filthy. Our clothes become stiff with dirt, with oil, with sweat and brine. We clean our clothes at the laundromat. We put them in the machines and take them out later to fold them hot and clean. We leave them behind the counter and pick them up later, folded and clean. We pay for a key at the counter and unlock one of the seventeen doors, we undress and step into the water, steam fills the room around us, we soap and shampoo, the heat soaks into our bodies, we emerge, hot and clean.  

We stoke saunas with broken pallets, newspapers, beer crates, anything that burns. We pile into saunas together, we pile in naked, sweating, thighs sticking, we talk and laugh and pass a bottle, we throw more wood and water on, we choke in the steam. One of us opens the door and escapes. We breathe fresh air. We disappear into the brightness of the outdoors, we run into a field, we stand in a field of fireweed and look at the sky, the fireweed covers us to our shoulders, the day covers us in light. This is how we grow older.

Our daughters go south and come back changed, smaller, with sliced-off hair and silences they themselves don’t understand. Our sons go south and east and west and come back sad, diminished, their dullness a pall on their faces. When they first return they sleep for days and then they forget they were ever away. We press them with snacks and six-packs as they disappear to bonfires at the beach and long hikes into the trees. They drive to the ends of roads and strike out in bands that camp in shadowed clearings for sacred rituals we remember from our youths.

Messages pass by word of mouth and we converge in the woods at night. Turntables and strobe lights appear among the sentinel trunks. We show up from all directions in the silver twilight that passes for summer darkness. Our bare arms gleam in the twilight. Sugary pills dissolve on our tongues and we disappear into each other and into flashes of light and into cold air that smells of spruce and frost. Our music connects our movements into one movement; our faces pulse into sight and out of sight; the straight trees around us glow and fade until the morning.

We drive Subarus held together with duct tape and wire. We drive old sixty-four flatbed Fords, red Toyota trucks heavy with tools, blue Datsun trucks with mattresses in the back under the camper-tops. We fill our vehicles with kids and dogs and friends and blankets and firewood. When the engines go we sell them for two hundred dollars or give them to the body shop. The shop puts a new engine in them and sells them to new owners who drive them around town through the snow. We recognize them by the bungee cord that holds the gas cap on.

We hitchhike along the roads; strangers give us rides and we take them. The strangers who give us rides give us gifts: halibut fillets that drip with ice water, pressed by kind fishermen into our hands, a heavy flank of white meat caked with ice flakes to be baked in the oven with mayonnaise. We talk music with strangers; we talk travels to Prudhoe Bay, the Aleutians, Kodiak, the Interior, Whittier, the edge of town. Men lock their car doors and demand kisses we don’t want to give; we say no to make them let us leave and they do.

We leave gifts at our friends’ doors and they leave gifts at ours. Raspberries gathered on warm hillsides in August, fiddlehead ferns picked in the deep woods to fry in butter, salmon caught fresh with dipnets in the river. We slit the belly of the salmon, down its pale stomach, and open it wide as a woman’s purse. Blue and purple innards coil inside, discrete and packaged. The flesh lines the flanks. We cut off a sliver of the red meat and place it in our mouths, translucent and glittering. It dissolves on our tongues with the taste of water.