By Brett Wilcox
SO WHAT BRINGS you to Sitka, Ben?” Pete asks as he loads my backpack onto his thirty-foot aluminum boat.
I release the bow mooring line from the cleat, but can’t shake the image of Amber from my mind: She’s crying again. “This job opened up. Me and my wife decided it was time to try something new—time for a little adventure.” I climb onto the boat, step into the cabin, and slide the cabin door closed.
Pete eases the boat out of the harbor and takes her into the winter chop and swell. He chuckles. “Alaska’s the right place for adventure.”
Soon the boat falls into a rough pattern, rising and falling, reminding me of Isaac’s small chest, his breath ragged and raspy. A bigger wave meets the boat. We crest, briefly take flight, then land hard. My back jolts as my butt bottoms out on the seat cushion. I notice Pete, legs spread, knees bent, absorbing the shock. He flips a switch and a wiper blade cleans the spray from the windshield.
He turns back and faces me with a smile. “I sure love the Christmas season.”
“Yeah, me too,” I say, aware that what has always been true for me is now a lie.
“I love it because everybody spends a little time with Jesus—even if it’s only a minute here and there.”
“Yup, that’s a good thing.”
My co-workers warned me about Pete before I got on his boat. Told me he’s a Jesus freak. Who else would name his boat John 3:16, they asked?
“So, have you found the Lord, Ben?”
My stomach tightens as the boat rolls. “Found him,” I answer, “but we might’ve had a little falling out.”
Pete makes an effort to lock his eyes on mine. I stare at the misty islands on the horizon, hoping to draw his focus away from me.
“Don’t you worry none,” Pete says, riding his boat over another pounding swell with the grace of a bull rider. “Once saved, always saved. You can’t escape His love after He’s set you on the path to heaven.”
I clumsily attempt to brace myself. “I suppose not.”
“But you know all that, don’t you, Ben? You got to have love in your heart to work with these kids. Saddest thing I ever seen. Moms and dads and whole villages drinking and fighting with each other.” Pete raises an imaginary bottle to his mouth and tilts his head back. He catches my eye and shakes his head. “Enough to make you sick.”
I feel the morning’s toast and eggs rising in my throat. I attempt to quell the uprising by running a gloved hand from my sternum down to my waist. “Yeah, pretty sad.”
We crest another wave. The windshield blade makes another pass and clears the view of Kruzof Island, my home for the next week. Mount Edgecumbe rises from the amorphous clouds enshrouding the coastline. Snow crowns her volcanic cone against a slate gray backdrop. She’s asleep now, or so she appears. I shift in my seat. The damp air snakes down my neck, and I yank the zipper of my coat; its teeth chatter until the pull tab strains against the upper stops.
“So how many kids you got out here this time around?” Pete asks.
“Only seven students.” We call the kids students, not clients, or patients, or consumers. It’s a hopeful moniker. But from what I’ve seen, most seem interested only in expanding their knowledge of illegal highs. Marijuana, home brew, pills, meth, even gasoline.
“Down a few this time?”
“Yeah, we lost some back in Sitka.”
“You can’t save them all, Ben.”
I see Amber’s image in my mind. She’s holding Isaac, his face still and white. “No. I can’t.”
“How many kids you got?” Pete asks.
“One,” I say out of habit. What used to be such a painless question with such a painless answer, now pierces deep. I swallow hard against the rising bile.
Pete picks up a cloth and wipes the fog from the windshield. “One’s a good start. The Lord has blessed me and Gloria with four—four of the best kids we could ever ask for. Take a look behind you.”
I turn. Pete’s got half a dozen family snapshots taped to the wall. “You guys look happy,” I say. Another wave hits while I’m facing backward and nausea washes over me. I face forward and take a deep breath.
“I’m glad you’re here, Ben. These kids need strong Christian folk like you to help them find their way. Kids are lost now days. God’s using you to find a few of them.”
I stifle a laugh. “Guess so,” I say. I’m surprised how easily light conversation bubbles from my darkened core. The phrase “whited sepulcher” passes through my mind.
Pete slows his boat and enters the bay. “Thank you, Lord, for another safe trip.” He talks like Jesus is at the helm.
I step out of the cabin onto the deck. The students line the shore in front of Brent’s Beach, their cheeks dark and rough. With their orange puff coats hanging open, they seem oblivious to the cold. Some wave their arms. A few stare out to sea like prisoners serving their sentence. I lift the lid from the fish tote and ready the food drop containers for the transfer from the boat to the beach. Joe, the lead Expo counselor, stands on a rocky outcrop and guides John 3:16 forward with his arms. His gestures remind me of the day Amber and I arrived in Sitka. We had barely stepped off the plane when Joe met us with outstretched arms. “Welcome to the land of my people, the Tlingit. I belong to the Raven clan.” The strength of his presence, not to mention his hand shake, surprised me. His strength now comforts me as he grips the railing and steadies the boat.
Mike and Daniel, the other two counselors, bark out commands and warnings to the students.
“Make a chain.”
“Leader in front.”
“The rocks are slippery.”
“Watch your step.”
The students form a line from the rocks back to the beach.
Joe booms out from his diaphragm, “We’re sure glad to see you, Ben.”
“Thanks, Joe,” I say as I pass the first food-filled tote to the lead student. “It’s good to be here.”
The students heft the totes, talking about how hungry they are and how they’re dying to stuff their faces. I get the feeling they think I’m Santa dropping off a load of Christmas presents. Good thing they can’t see my shrunken Grinch-like heart.
I STEP OFF the boat and slip, almost falling into the sea. Two or three of the students laugh.
“Don’t matter,” Joe says, giving me a hand. “Getting up’s all that counts.”
Pete backs his boat away from the rocks. We shout thanks and watch John 3:16 grow smaller. Mike speaks into his hand held radio. “See you next week at Point Brown, Pete.”
“We sure will,” Pete replies over the radio. “Merry Christmas and God bless.”
I’m pretty sure when he says “we,” he’s referring to himself and Jesus.
I turn and face the students. They’re anxious to tell me how far they’ve come—from Point Brown to Fred’s Creek, nearly to Shoal’s Point, and then back to Brent’s Beach.
I struggle to pay attention. “Good job, gentlemen,” I say with my clinician voice. “Staff tell me you’re monster hikers.” Staff also told me they can be monsters, something I don’t pass on to them.
Joe circles the students and staff on the beach. He’s clearly the alpha male staff member. He reminds me of the actor who played King Richard at last summer’s Shakespearean festival—dark skinned and regal looking, with a stage presence that commands attention even on the beach.
Mike is short, bald, solid muscle, and all business. This is my first time seeing him in his legendary, gadget packed fluorescent orange safety vest. He doesn’t drink coffee, but he’s got so much energy he reminds me of the old cartoon character, the Tasmanian Devil.
If I didn’t know Daniel, he’d scare me. Hair curly and unkempt, beard stringy, coke bottle glasses. He drove from Chicago to Alaska three years ago in a beat up Chevy van and I hear he’s still sleeping in it. He can spout useless trivia on command, multiply three-digit math problems in his head, and fix just about anything.
Joe tells the students they need to carry the totes through the woods back to the cabin.
“We’re hungry,” they complain almost in unison. “When’s lunch?”
“Lunch?” Mike repeats, pulling at his vest with his thumbs. “What makes you think any of this stuff is for you guys?”
They grumble in response until Joe says, “Work first; eat later.”
I struggle with my backpack. Mike helps me get it on my back. “Are you all right?” he asks. The way his hand rests on my shoulder, I know he’s talking about Isaac. He’s one of the few I’ve told.
I nod. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
I see the doubt in his eyes as he studies my face.
We hike along the trail through the trees until we emerge into a clearing complete with a cabin, a fire burning in the fire pit, a fully stocked wood shed, and a couple of hammocks made from washed up trawlers’ nets. My mood rises when I see smoke rising from the cabin chimney. If I’m going to die in the Tongass National Rainforest, it won’t be from the cold.
The students drop the totes on the cabin deck. The Expo counselors haul the totes into the cabin to unpack the food while I run a group with the students around the campfire. They talk about life in their hometowns and villages.
“In Anvik, I only know five people in the whole village that don’t smoke marijuana,” says a younger student while fingering a scar on his cheek.
“Yeah, same thing in Takotna,” says another with a trace of his Native village accent. “And everybody drinks.”
“Aren’t those dry villages?” I ask.
“Takotna is, but that don’t stop nobody. People bring it in on the bush planes or they make home brew.”
The boy with the scar says, “Me and Aaka smoke together after school every day.”
“Aaka?” I repeat.
I nod, trying to imagine myself as a teenager smoking a joint with my grandmother.
“How about you?” a student asks through rotting teeth. His eyes are gleaming. I’ve seen that look before. He wants to hear about my party days so he can enjoy a vicarious high. His mouth is probably watering.
I stare into the forest shadows. Nope. Not me. Not once. Not ever. No pot. No beer. No cigarettes. Not even coffee. My words dry his mouth. His eyelids droop with disbelief. I don’t blame him for doubting. His mother has been mixing drinks with lies and lovers his whole life. He narrows his eyes. “Where are you from?”
“A different planet,” I say. No point trying to explain. Too different, too far away, too alien, and too boring. Even if my words were true, why would anyone choose to face the pain of life without getting smashed or wasted? Lately, my life-long answers to that question chill me like a December rain.
I scan the faces of the boys around the fire, and wonder what a middle-aged, hurting, white guy from the Utah desert can offer hurting Native Alaskan kids. I feel like a tumbleweed blown from my home of clear skies, dry air, and religious certainty to Alaska’s panhandle—a land of ten thousand sunlight-starved islands lost on the edge of the world. How wrong I was to have thought that running from the memories would help Amber, help me, or help us.
AFTER WE FINISH the group discussion, Daniel approaches the students. His eyes bulge behind his glasses and his beard blows about in the breeze. He points to the cabin. “Your processed carbs, fats, and proteins await you. Grab them now and eat in your cook groups.”
The students gladly do as they’re told. When we’re alone, Daniel sits next to me at the fire. “How’d the group go?”
I grab a stick and poke around in the coals. “They’re all cured.”
He runs his fingers through his beard. “So are you the next Schweitzer, shaman, or Aswini Deva?”
I throw the stick on the fire. “Does Aswini Deva sell snake oil?”
After we’ve finished lunch and hung the bear bags, we assemble around the Medicine Wheel the students have built on the ground next to the cabin. They used dark gray beach sand to outline the circle and divide the four quadrants. Seashells fill one quadrant representing white, dead beach grass fills another representing yellow, red cedar bark for red, and shadowy stones from the beach for black. Among other things, the quadrants represent the four major races, the elements, the seasons, and our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual selves. This deeply symbolic tool is commonly used in Native American communities to help people heal from addictions, hence the name Medicine Wheel. The rigid part of my religious makeup tells me it’s all hogwash. But lately, everything feels like hogwash.
Joe holds the Talking Feather. “For most kids, solo fits best into the spiritual part of the Medicine Wheel. If you take it serious, solo can be like a rebirth.”
The boy with the black teeth makes an obscene gesture.
Joe ignores him. “Your moms worked hard to bring you into this world. But it was worth it, right?”
The boy with the scar turns away and spits. “My mom says I’m bad. Says she wished I was never born.”
I’ve heard those words from other kids and have always managed to respond like a professional. But this time, I’m chilled from the inside out.
“She didn’t mean it,” Joe says.
Mike attempts to redirect the discussion. “This is your opportunity to work on the spiritual side of the Medicine Wheel—to get connected with your higher power.”
“Ben,” Joe says, “if we’re making too much noise, just shut us up so you can share your wisdom with these guys.”
I’m used to the staff deferring to me and my degree. “You’re doing fine,” I say, pleased they’re leading the discussion. The last thing I want to do is pretend to be an expert on spiritual matters. I’ve got more questions than answers and more accusations than questions.
After we place the students on solo, the counselors hang out in the cabin. Mike sautés scallops over the propane stove while cussing at Joe. Joe feeds the fire, sweeps the floor, stirs up dust, and trash talks Mike in return. Daniel’s lying on his bunk, holding a thick paperback with one hand and smoothing his beard with the other. I sit at the table with my daypack to my side. We’re all wearing our headlamps. Their beams look like solid shafts of light extending from our heads, shooting through the smoky air. Occasionally, the shafts intersect like lasers.
“What time is it?” Joe asks.
Mike points his headlamp at his watch. “It’s 4:20, you dope fiend.”
Joe laughs. “It’s always 4:20 for our kids.”
I pull my journal from my backpack, wishing I had left it home. So much pain. But what if Amber had found it? What if she opened it and read my curses, not the friendly kind of curses Joe and Mike exchange.
I open it and scan a familiar entry: Gave Isaac a blessing today. The Spirit was strong. God promised to heal him. Got to have faith.
“What you reading?” Joe calls out.
I close the journal, my hand holding the page. “Nothing.”
“You writing a book?” Joe asks. “Read us some.”
“Leave him alone,” Mike says to Joe.
“It’s a journal,” I reply.
Joe opens the door and throws the dirt from the dustpan into the darkness. I’m startled at how fast the cold air rushes into the cabin.
“That another thing Mormons got to do to get to heaven?” Joe asks.
“I wouldn’t say that.”
Joe closes and latches the cabin door. “Are you a priest?”
I was ordained a high priest just before Amber announced she was pregnant. Now, a year later, I’ve never felt lower. “Mormon men are all priests, pretty much.”
“No shit! A church full of priests.”
I nod my head.
Joe leans the broom against a corner and reaches for my journal. “You mind?”
I hand him the journal, realizing I feel safer in this cabin with three non-Mormon guys than I do in church, and sadly, much safer than I feel with Amber.
He handles the journal, then thumbs through the pages.
I stare at him. Something about the haze in the cabin makes him appear almost ghostlike.
“My grandma used to take me to Saint Peters when I was a kid,” he says. “I served as an acolyte there. That was a long time ago and things have changed. I’ve seen too damn much and been saved too many times not to believe, but I’m not into all that church shit anymore.”
Joe’s lost the church, yet still has his belief. For any onlooker, I still have the church, but I buried my belief with Isaac.
Mike points the spatula and his headlamp at Joe’s face. “What kind of shit—excuse me, Ben—are you into, Joe?” Mike routinely swears in front of the female counselors back in town without a thought, but he always gives me an apology.
Joe swipes at the beam of light in his eyes. “Why you gotta treat Ben like that?”
Mike’s face turns red. “I’m just showing him some respect.”
“Bullshit!” Joe responds. “Does he look like a bitch to you, Marcellus?”
I could never join in their banter, but I like listening to it. Somehow, it seems more real and respectful than some of the polite conversation I’m used to. “What movie’s that line from?” I ask.
“Pulp Fiction, 1994,” Daniel says from his bunk.
Joe hands my journal back to me. “You wouldn’t like it—too much shit in it for you.”
Joe’s probably right. I’ve got enough blaspheming and violence surging through my synapses without help from Hollywood.
Mike and Joe exchange more insults. Daniel gives up on his book and starts working on his dissected iPod spread on the cabin table. I open my journal and ready my pen, but no words come. Joe asks Mike and Daniel if they want to hike back down to Inner Point tomorrow to search for glass balls.
“Hell, no!” Mike says. “But you can bring me back a ball or two.”
“You’re killing me, Mike!” Joe says. “You wouldn’t know what to do with balls if you found them between your legs.” He grabs his crotch for emphasis.
Daniel looks up from his iPod. “You already got one ball on this trip, man. It’s like you’re obsessed with them or something.”
Joe shakes his head, his headlamp beam slicing the darkness. “See, Ben. That’s what I’m talking about.”
“I’ll go,” I offer.
Joe hesitates. “It’s quite a ways there and back and I’m hauling ass.”
He doesn’t think I can keep up.
“More ass than Ben’s hauling,” Mike says.
“Did you just call me a lard ass?” Joe asks. He turns away from Mike and grabs his butt cheeks. “Listen, punk. Your wife loves squeezing my lard ass.”
Mike kicks at Joe’s butt but misses. “Kiss off and get the hell out of my cabin.”
“Damn right, we will,” Joe says, laughing. “Come on, Ben. Let’s go check on the kids. Mike wants us men to leave so he can smoke a little dope and braid Daniel’s beard.”
JOE AND I leave. Their insults echo in my mind as we head down the trail toward the stream.
“You’ve seen glass balls before, right?” Joe asks.
“Yeah, in stores and people’s front yards and stuff. But I’ve never found one.”
“You’re way overdue. Tomorrow’s gonna be your lucky day, you bastard.”
“How many have you found?” I ask.
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Joe says as he fills the dromedary bag at the stream. The light from our headlamps illuminates the water cascading over the rocks. He dips his hands in the frigid stream without a pause. “But I don’t got that many. I give most of them away.”
“They’re worth a lot, aren’t they?” I ask.
Joe throws a full dromedary on the bank and starts filling the next one. “They are to me. Some people don’t get it. They think those balls are just more shit in the sea. But I look at them and see a story. You know, like some ancient guy sitting in his home blowing life into every little piece of art by hand. Each one unique, not quite round, but just the way it’s supposed to be. And those Japanese fishermen tying them to their nets, praying for a good catch. I see them floating around in the ocean for twenty, thirty, forty years or more before a storm tears them away and washes them up on the beach. There’s a lot of history there.”
“So you just give them away?”
He fills his Nalgene bottle, swigs half of it, then fills it again. “Why not? They’re not mine to keep. The sea tries to give them back to those tough old fishermen. She doesn’t know most of them are dead and gone. I’m just a caretaker, Ben. I hang on to some and pass the rest to other caretakers.”
“I’ve seen them on eBay,” I say.
“That’s messed up,” Joe says, moving down the trail. “I don’t sell them.”
When we come to the first solo site, we turn back into counselor mode. We check, lecture, refill, listen, reassure, and then leave.
“That kid’s gonna relapse,” Joe says when we’re out of earshot.
“How do you know?” I ask.
“Probably gonna end up dead, or at least brain dead.”
I nod. We trudge on in silence. I try to make out firm shapes and angles beyond my headlamp’s beam, but see only darkness. Darkness and death. Persistent, yet patient.
When our headlamps light up the next student’s tarp, Joe says, “Sit this one out.”
“You don’t have to tell me what’s going on, Ben, but your spirit’s in a dark place tonight.”
I want to argue with him, pull rank on him, tell him to mind his own business, but he’s right. “Thanks,” I say.
Joe connects with the remaining students while I blend into the shadows.
A good hour later, back in the cabin, I climb onto my bunk, take off my multiple layers, then bury myself in my sleeping bag. I hear Joe, Mike, and Daniel talking over dinner, their voices low. I surrender myself to the darkness and sleep.
Several hours later, I awake to an urgent need to pee. I burst from my bag, pull on my boots, charge out of the cabin, and run to the beach. I stand there in my boots, pajama bottoms, and T-shirt staring at the sun as I relieve myself. Mornings like these—rare mornings when the clouds disappear long enough for the sun to actually make an appearance—warm my soul. I take in the coruscating light, the promise of heat. I suck in the scent of cedar and seaweed. I fight the urge to strip down. How good it would feel to channel the sun’s light through a colossal magnifying glass and bake my naked body. How good I feel to have slept through the entire night. First time in Alaska.
“Good morning to you, too,” Joe calls out from the cabin deck. Steam rises from the oversized coffee mug in his hands. “You feeling better?”
“Yeah,” I say, walking back to the cabin. “Much.”
“Up for that hike?”
Mike opens the door and announces, “Tortillas, beans, and eggs.”
I haven’t been this hungry in months. Maybe I’m getting better. Moving on, some people might say.
After breakfast and checking on the students to the south of the cabin, Joe and I continue along the beach toward Inner Point. He waves his arm at the deer tracks crisscrossing the beach. “Thicker than trailer court drug dealers,” he says. “Dealers are more fun to shoot, but taste like shit.” Then we approach a set of bear tracks heading back toward the cabin.
“Fresh,” Joe says. “A small one. Probably following the group. I seen one follow us for fifteen miles once. Hope it stays away from the kids.”
“Aren’t they supposed to hibernate?” I ask.
“Some do, some don’t. Been too mild this year. No reason to sleep when there’s still food around.”
The surf pushes us off the beach and into the forest. Joe calls out with a friendly greeting, “Hey bear. No trouble.” He turns to me. “The kids saw a bear right here a few days back.”
“What’d they say?”
“I told them the bear showed himself because he trusts them.”
“You think that’s true?”
Joe shrugs his shoulders. “They need to hear that somebody trusts them.”
Soon we’re back on the beach, back in the sun, and I start to sweat. I stop to peel off a layer. I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to be warm when I’m outside.
Joe points at a distant rock formation sticking out of the water some three points down the coast. “That’s Inner Point,” he says. “Looks like a killer whale fin.”
I struggle to see the similarity.
“Be patient,” says Joe. “You’ll find her. Takes a while sometimes.”
About two hours later, Joe points at the same killer whale rock formation. “At this angle, it’s just a bunch of rocks,” he says. The rocks mark the tip of the point some hundred yards from where we stand. Tide pools and washed up piles of seaweed fill in the distance between our place on the beach and the killer whale. “At high tide that whale could swim away if he wanted to, but he never does.” We turn away from the sea and face the island. Storm surges have tossed huge logs along the upper edge of the beach. They’re adorned with clumps of beach grass and scraps of garbage.
Joe leads me up the beach to one of the biggest logs. He gives it a swat and water sprays out like he slapped a sponge. He fingers the growth rings on the cut end of the log. Pointing to the center, he says, “This spruce was born more than five hundred years ago.” He moves his finger across the rings. “I’d love to see what he’s seen.” He scans the pile of jammed and jumbled logs, then sweeps his arm in front of him. “This is the right place.”
I’m not impressed. I see bottles, rusting containers, a five-gallon bucket, three tires, and the remains of two wooden boats. I pick up a liquor bottle and examine the writing. “Russian,” I say.
“No shit. I bet there’s a hundred balls right here, buried in the sand under this crap.”
Joe’s voice grows distant. “Yeah. Sometimes you can still find them on the beach, but mostly, if you want a glass ball, you gotta dig for it.” He hefts some of the smaller logs, giving him access to his treasured burial ground. He grabs a stick and digs down into the sand.
I face the sun and the sea. My thoughts flow away with the outgoing waves, drifting back to the cemetery. Amber and I stand at the edge of the tiny grave, together, but so very alone. She refuses to leave, refuses to join the others at the church luncheon. Dead leaves blow about our feet. Some swirl into the grave and settle on the casket, next to the fresh flowers we’ve tossed down. I button my overcoat and turn up the collar. Amber’s face is like marble—expressionless, her hands cold and exposed at her sides. I reach for her hand. She stiffens at my touch, her eyes locked on the casket. The casket is small, but big enough to hold Amber’s heart. How much of her is left? How much of us is left? I hate myself. With every fiber of my being, I hate myself.
“They ain’t gonna pop out of the ground for you, Ben,” Joe says.
I shake my head, turn away from my memory, and face Joe. He’s on one knee, his hands covered in wet sand.
“No doubt of that,” I say
He rises and steps toward me. “You all right?” His brow furrows.
I nod. “You keep searching. I’ll just check out the sights.”
Joe eyes me, then turns back to digging.
I distract myself by checking out the various languages printed on the world’s garbage. I find a big metal drum with Korean characters and the words, “Danger! Don’t Lose It,” printed in English. I find a mixture of English and Japanese on a plastic Sprite bottle, and another liquor bottle with the phrase, “Viet Nam Duty,” printed on it.
Even though I slept through the night, I’m tired. I leave Joe to his digging and search for the driest log. I find it sloping toward the sun. I lie on its surface, concentrating on the sun’s faint heat. I doze and drift away to the day of the blessing. Amber’s holding Isaac in her arms. She’s sitting in the “blessing chair” in the center of the living room. The light from the fading Indian summer sunset reflects off Isaac’s cheek. I kneel in front of my wife and son and place my fingertips on Isaac’s head; my right middle finger rests on his pulsating soft spot. His skin is like fire. I inhale deeply. Please God, I silently plead. Heal our baby. I’ll say anything. I’ll do anything. Just heal Isaac.
I clear my throat and try to empty my mind before offering the blessing. I listen for the voice of God.
“By the authority of the holy Melchizedek Priesthood,” I say, “I bless you, Isaac, that your lungs will be clear, that your heart will be strong, and that your body will be healed from this infection.”
A surging, peaceful calm flows through my body. Amber’s tears fall from her cheeks onto the backs of my hands. Doubt-filled thoughts shatter my single serene moment. A voice breaks into the blessing.
“I can’t believe this. It’s like they’re hiding from me.”
Amber and Isaac disappear.
I open my eyes and see Joe staring in my direction. Sweat lines his brow.
My body is cold, my joints stiff, my back wet. I have no idea how long I’ve been lying on the log. “Maybe I’m cursed.”
“Piss on that,” Joe says. “But you ain’t worth shit when it comes to glass balls.”
I nod, stand, and stretch. “That’s for sure.”
Joe slings on his backpack. “Let’s get out of here.”
We start back to the cabin. About half way there, we come upon two more sets of bear tracks. “A sow and her cub,” Joe says. “I hope she ain’t planning on serving up student stew to her baby.”
We keep a steady pace until we come to the solo site of the student farthest from the cabin. Joe kneels next to the boy at his stone-cold fire pit. “Still no fire?”
The boy shakes his head.
“What did I tell you?” Joe asks.
“I don’t know,” the boy mumbles as he stares at the ground.
Joe makes eye contact with the boy. “Is that your best answer?”
The boy breaks a stick in his hands and grumbles, “You said we gotta gather this much small stuff before we light the match.” He stretches his arms out wide.
Joe points at the five or six sticks in the fire pit. “You think that’s enough?”
I leave Joe and the boy behind and check on the next student. He’s got a big smoky fire burning. He says, “Tell Joe I’ve kept my fire burning all day.”
“He’ll be right here,” I say. “You can tell him yourself.”
I return to the cabin, lie on my bunk, and pick up a book.
Mike and Daniel are sitting at the table. Mike’s cursing his paperwork and Daniel’s tinkering with a lantern. “How many’d you find?” Mike asks.
Joe swings open the door and stomps his boots.
Mike turns to him. “Let’s see the goods.”
“Shut up, asshole.”
Mike laughs and slaps the table. “Six hours and nothing?”
“We saw three sets of bear tracks,” Joe says. “All of them heading this way.”
“Shit!” Mike says. “Just what we need. Stinky kids lined up and down the beach in puff coats and sleeping bags.”
Daniel’s scraping away at the lantern’s base with his Leatherman. Without looking up, he says, “One chance in three million. But if we lose a kid, that’s one that won’t relapse.” He sets the lantern in the center of the table. “Should work now. Where did you guys put the mantels?”
Joe shakes his head with disgust. “Can’t you guys do nothing without me?”
Daniel adjusts his glasses. “So you don’t know where they’re at?” He pulls a tote out from under his bunk, and rummages through it until he finds a Ziploc full of mantels. He attaches one to the lantern and lights it up. The fiery light brightens the dim cabin. I hear myself sigh. Maybe with the lantern I’ll survive the dusk and darkness better than last night.
“Now that’s what I’m talking about!” Mike says as he positions his pile of paperwork in front of him.
“Damn documentation,” Joe says. “Less useful than toilet paper.”
We chuckle, then fall with ease into a few minutes of ignoring each other. Mike scratches away on his paperwork at the table, Daniel lies down and tunes out with his iPod, and Joe snores from his bunk.
I check out the graffiti on the cabin ceiling. The words “Jesus saves” and a local phone number are burned into a wooden plank. I wonder who would pick up the line if I called. Sure as hell not Jesus.
Amber’s question pierces my mind. “Was the blessing true or did you just hear God say what you wanted to hear?” She wasn’t mad when she first asked. She just needed to know. The anger came later, when we both knew the answer. I would have preferred a fiery rage, but her ice cold ire froze her heart, and did the same to me every time I looked in her eyes or touched her hand.
I replay more painful scenes in my mind until the dimming outside light reminds me that the sun is setting on yet another short Alaskan winter day.
Joe stops snoring, clears his throat, and announces, “Time for another solo check. Who’s coming with me?”
Daniel pulls out his ear buds and slips on his glasses. “The fire’s going out. I better chop some more wood.”
Mike pushes his paperwork to the side and stands up. “I’m on dinner.”
COME ON, BEN,” Joe says. “Get your sorry ass off the bunk and make yourself useful. You look lower than whale shit.”
“Leave him alone,” Mike says.
“No. Joe’s right,” I say. “Give me a minute while I get my boots and stuff on.”
I step onto the deck bundled in my coat, hat, and gloves and find Joe—dressed in a fleece shirt minus the hat and gloves—admiring the sunset. The sun’s last rays have colored the clouds in shades of gold, orange, pink, and red. Their colors reflect off the surface of the sea. Everything is silent and peaceful. A raven sweeps by overhead, so close that we hear its wings beating against the air. An ebony feather drops to the ground at my feet. Joe picks it up and hands it to me.
I study its complex design. In former days, I would have seen the sunset, the raven, and the feather as a message from God: Brighter days are coming. But I know better now. It’s just a sunset, just a bird, and just a feather.
I blow the feather into the air, and say, “Let’s go.”
Joe and I head to the beach, flip a coin, and start with the students to the north. We walk along the beach for a hundred yards or so when Joe touches my arm and stops me. He points ahead. Ravens are calling out and dive-bombing a dark object rolling in and out with the waves at the water’s edge.
“That’s strange,” Joe says. He rushes down the beach, splashes into the surf, and lifts some sort of canvas bag from the water.
“What do you think it is?” I ask, catching up to him.
Water drains from the bag as Joe carries it up the beach. He kneels in the sand and lays the bag at his feet. I kneel beside him. He spreads it out and we see that it’s a duffle bag with two handles and a zipper.
He pulls his headlamp from his pocket, puts it on his head, and turns it on. The light illuminates some sort of ribbon tied onto one of the handles. Joe unzips the bag. “Oh my God,” he whispers, his tone sounding more like a prayer than one of his normal curses.
“What? What is it?”
He pulls out a thick black garbage sack, stands, and cradles it.
“Be careful,” he says, placing the sack in my arms. I reposition my feet to help me support the weight of the bundle.
He flicks his knife open and cuts around the knot. He pulls open the sack and finds another garbage sack inside. He cuts through that one and finds a third. Five or six sacks later, he pulls back the plastic and exposes a white towel folded around a small bundle. He lays his trembling hands on the towel.
“Did you feel that?” he asks.
I don’t know what he feels, but I know what I smell: rotting flesh. A wave of nausea swells within me.
His eyes are brimming with tears.
I turn my head to escape the smell. The ravens are hopping on the beach, cocking their heads at us and cawing. Above them, the sky has turned lead gray.
Joe pulls the bundle from the garbage sacks and holds it to his chest.
“A new born,” he says. “A boy.”
My stomach pulls tight. I drop the sacks at my feet. He’s wrong, of course. He can’t possibly know what’s in the towel. And even if it is a baby, there’s no way he knows it’s a boy.
Joe catches my eye. “Didn’t you feel him go past?”
I sense myself slipping away. The sound of the cawing ravens echoes within my mind. The color drains from the trees leaving them dark and menacing. I take a step backward to keep from falling.
“Shit, Ben! Don’t you pass out on me.”
Suddenly, I’m hot. I feel sweat running down my spine. I wipe my hand across my forehead. It comes away wet.
Joe cradles the bundle in one arm, then peels back the edge of the towel.
The ground shifts.
The surf mutes.
Isaac’s lifeless face.
“He was alive when they put him in here,” Joe says. “There’s shit on the blanket.” He holds the blanket open for me to see the black smudge.
I stare at the umbilical cord, swollen and white, tied off with a thin piece of twine.
“Go get Mike and Daniel,” Joe says, wrapping the baby up again. “Tell them to bring the phone. I’m staying right here.”
I scan the area. Beach. Surf. Trees. Ravens.
“The baby’s cold,” I say. “Let’s take him to the cabin.”
I see Joe’s lips moving. He’s shouting at me. “Ben! Get Mike and Daniel, damn it!”
My head nods. My legs carry me stiffly back to the cabin.
Daniel’s chopping wood.
“There’s a baby on the beach,” I tell him.
His eyes grow large behind his glasses.
I open the door to the cabin.
Mike’s cooking dinner.
“There’s a baby on the beach.”
He wheels around and fixes his eyes on me. “A what?”
“Bring the phone.”
“You better not be shitting me.” He turns off the propane, grabs his vest, and scrambles out the door.
From the cabin deck, I see Daniel running on the beach toward Joe, the light of his headlamp rising and falling with his steps. Mike and I follow in his path.
Joe hasn’t moved. Still cradling the baby, he gives the details to Mike and Daniel.
Mike makes the call.
While waiting, Joe, Mike, and Daniel talk. What do we tell the students? When do we tell them? Do we call off solo? Do we hold a group so they can process?
Joe asks my opinion. I step back and shake my head.
“You okay?” Mike asks.
Amber. One way or another, she’s going to hear about the baby. Do I go home and tell her? Do I stay here and tell her? How much do I share? If I don’t tell her, how will she find out? Newspaper? Friend? What will she think? Will she blame me? Maybe she’s not alone.
I rejected the feather.
The lights from the Coast Guard rescue chopper finally appear in the sky. When it lands some thirty yards down the beach, the force of the propellers shoots spray and sand in every direction. Two detectives—one man and one woman—get out and run toward us. The woman asks countless questions while the man takes countless photos. Each camera flash burns the image of the infant into my memory. We gather around the man as he lays a black body bag on the sand, our headlamps illuminating his movements. Still holding the baby, Joe stands next to the body bag. He smoothes the towel, kneels, and places the baby in the bag. The man zips the bag closed.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper.
“What?” The woman says.
Joe stands. “You all right, Ben?”
Mike puts a hand on my shoulder. “Ben lost a baby a while back.”
The woman’s chin rises, as if she understands. I see Amber in her eyes.
“The baby’s cold,” I say. “Please keep him warm.”
She glances at her partner, and then back to me. “We’ll take care of him. I promise.”
The man picks up the body bag. Mike and Daniel stand next to me while Joe walks the detectives back to the helicopter. When Joe returns, he holds me tight. My arms remain at my side. “I didn’t know, Ben,” he shouts over the roar of the helicopter blades. “If you need to leave the island, or call your wife or something. . . .”
I shake my head and push him away. My thoughts are on the baby. Watching him rise into the air feels right. Babies don’t belong in the water, don’t belong in the ground. He’s safe, warm, and protected now. He’s flying home.
Daniel leaves to pull the boys north of the cabin off solo. Joe does the same for the boys south of the cabin. Mike and I walk back to the cabin. He tells me he’ll stay with me in the cabin while Joe and Daniel process with the students.
“I’d rather be alone,” I say.
I go into the cabin, load the stove, and lie on my bag in total darkness. Soon, I hear the boys’ voices outside the cabin. I can’t make out the words, but they’re excited to see each other, excited to tell their own version of the story. Joe groups them up. He quiets the boys and their voices trail away like whispers.
The cabin is hot now. I sweat and I cry.
The group talks outside for hours before Joe, Mike, and Daniel take the boys back to their solo sites.
It feels like midnight. I press the light on my watch. Only 9:35.
I lie on my side facing the wall, and pretend to sleep when the counselors enter the cabin.
They speak with soft voices, as if at a funeral. Someone adds more wood to the fire, then they go to their bunks and get in their bags.
Sometime in the night, the fire goes out. Shivering, I get in my sleeping bag, and wait until I finally sleep.
Like countless nights before, I meet Amber at the cemetery. She’s standing next to me. She reads Isaac’s tombstone. “Our angel flew back home.” I reach for Amber’s hand. She turns and embraces me. How long I’ve waited for that embrace, but I cringe in her arms. I don’t deserve her love. “I’m so sorry, Amber,” I cry. “I’m so sorry, Isaac.”
She presses my head into her coat. “Let him go. He’s safe now. Just let him go.”
I hear other voices. Can’t they leave us alone? How long I’ve waited for Amber’s touch. I turn to the voices. Squinting into the light, I see Joe, Mike, and Daniel seated at the cabin table. It’s morning. No, I think. I need Amber. They’re looking at a small glass ball in Joe’s hands. No bigger than a baseball. Pale green, scratched, and flecked.
“I had a dream,” Joe says, seeing me awake. “The baby needed our help. The sea carried him to our beach and placed him in the arms of this island. A great bear stood watch with the baby at the beach, protecting him from evil spirits. Raven called out to you and me, Ben. He told us to come for the baby. We found him wrapped in a native robe, warm and safe. I lifted the robe off his face so he could find the path to his ancestors. You held him above your head and told him to go. We watched him fly home.”
My head shifts on my pillow. I feel dampness against my cheek.
“I woke up at dawn and stepped outside. It was snowing.” Joe pauses and looks out the cabin window.
I sit up on my bunk and follow his gaze. Fat snowflakes are falling and swirling like a million downy feathers.
Joe continues, “I walked to the beach—to where we found the baby. I saw two sets of bear tracks at the water’s edge—a mama and her cub. A raven hopped about on the beach and cawed at me. Then I saw something bobbing in the water.”
He holds up the ball and looks at it the way he looked at the baby’s face. “A wave carried this up the beach and laid it at my feet.”
Our eyes meet. “I wasn’t surprised,” he says. “Sometimes you gotta work for them, and sometimes God just gives them to you.” He lifts the ball toward me. “This one’s got your name all over it, Ben.”
I take the ball in my hands.
“Merry Christmas and God bless,” Joe says.
Mike and Daniel nod their heads. “Merry Christmas,” Mike adds.
The tip of my middle finger settles naturally on the ball’s little round seam like it used to on Isaac’s bellybutton. I hold it close and examine its details. The green brings back images of spring, images of Isaac’s birth.
Amber’s voice resounds in my head. Let him go. He’s safe now.
Is it true or am I only hearing what I want to hear?
“God bless,” I whisper. “Please, God!”