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Alaska, one of earth's final frontiers, still mostly unspoiled by human beings who've ravaged much of the rest of the planet. This is the voyage of Arctic Avenger -- formerly the steam tug, Rhinoceros -- and her rag-tag crew of "seal-savers," an unlikely mix of black, white, and Native-Americans, some dedicated to saving the planet at any cost to themselves, others at first reluctant until realizing that it's not a few bad people doing bad things who threaten the world but a lot of good people doing nothing to stop them.
Rowley, black, from Oakland, California, has forged a new life in Alaska as an engineer on a corporate tugboat based in Prince William Sound and saved Russel, his 14-year-old son, who does a man's work as a deckhand, from the gangs, guns, drugs and violence polluting the Lower-forty-right. For a productive and peaceful two years he's been living with Jana, an Aleut woman, in the mountains south of Anchorage. Jana, strong and educated, and an accomplished painter, is nevertheless haunted by ancient ancestral memories and spirits from her childhood.
But, Jana's spiritualism and ever-increasing resolve to protect her land and its animals conflicts with Rowley's realism, which, though not wholly materialistic, seems a lot more earthly. And there is Russel's apparent mistrust of Jana as a mother-figure. Rowley often tries to tell Jana that children are also an endangered species, and until all human beings have safe, stable and sustainable environments, there is little hope of saving the animals. Still, he and Jana love each other, and Russel seems to accept their relationship -- though perhaps warily -- and so far they have usually agreed to disagree on environmental issues.
To Rowley, Jana's environmentalism seems more like a therapeutic hobby, though she has invested a lot of her money, earned from selling her paintings -- as well as what he brings home -- into a dubious research vessel owned by a young white scientist who, disillusioned by corporate junk-science funded only for profit, has run away to Alaska in hope doing something that matters... ostensibly to study seals.
But all are brought together, along with two Aleut boys and a white teen refugee from "Outside," to stop a toxic waste dumping plot.
© 2012 Jess Mowry
Raindrops rattled the window glass with a sound like an alarm bell heard through quarter-inch steel. Rowley awoke in a second. His hand shot out for the flashlight... the generator would probably die, sucked a herring and overheated. He flung off the blankets and froze. The flashlight wasn't where it belonged.
But maybe neither was he.
His vision cleared and he pulled up the blanket, feeling adrenaline drain from his blood, chilling him so he shivered. He wondered for maybe the millionth time why he always woke up with the surreal sense that he wasn't a part of this picture. He'd been dreaming about a sunlit scene of swaying palm trees and turquoise waves, the usual escapist shit of laying somewhere on his ass in the sand with a book, a forty, and Russel, and the bell had rung to mock his dream. ...Except that there had been no bell, only the wind-driven rattle of rain like nature's natural wake-up call.
Time for a change? his gargoyle asked. You have the means to paint your own picture.
He sank back into the big fluffy pillow. According to old Uncle Remus -- al-la Walt Disney -- some folks found bluebirds perched on their shoulders, but all he had was a gargoyle. And he'd never belonged in anyone's picture. He considered the fact that he really could flee; he had the means if not the motive -- or maybe not the motive yet -- but Captain MacLeod had once told a story of a man in the late 1930s, who, convinced that the civilized world was evil, had run away to a tiny island, an island he'd thought was so isolated and so insignificant to the world that no one would ever bother it.
The name of that island was Iwo Jima.
Compose yourself, homes. Lately his gargoyle had taken to mimicking Jana's often pedantic voice and tossing off words like "compose.” He snagged the word like a dead seal and heaved it overboard, so to speak, and hoped it would sink out of sight. Jana used words like that all the time, as if Anglo-Saxon eloquence was better than her own native tongue to express the fact that shit smells bad.
He scented the air; why had he dreamed of a tropical isle when the smells around him were wet pine trees, clean cotton sheets, and Jana? She had a beautiful scent, wild and woodsy, a natural woman; but could you love someone for just how they smelled? He snorted to clear his nostrils like dog who wants to change the subject.
Jana stirred as he yawned and stretched, then sleepily sighed and kicked him. Jana wasn't a morning-person despite all her natural ways.
"Rowley?" came her murmur, making his name an animal sound.
"Expecting something warm and fuzzy?"
Her fuzzy mind conceded the point, though once she had woken in horror to find herself cuddling Russel, who’d had a bad dream and joined his father. She hadn't actually done anything, but fortunately Russel had been asleep.
At least she hoped he'd been.
Rowley relaxed, closing his eyes and casting his fingers onto the night table for a pack of Camels and a box of waterproof matches... the latter made, according to Jana, by exploited Australian Bushmen. Jana rolled onto her back, half awake now and wishing she wasn't. She studied Rowley's body-language; the native was restless this morning. He lounged against the headboard and fired a cigarette. Smoking in bed was a house no-no, rule number 666; and this might be a beastly morning, she thought; last mornings often were lately. She wondered where he was in his mind. Or where he might have been. ...Or maybe where he wished he was.
Well, she thought, maybe if she could button her lip about whales, seals, and the environment -- and especially the research boat -- their last hours together might still be saved.
Rowley flipped the match into the bathroom, scoring a dunk on the high-tank toilet, and sucked smoke deep as if it were Lamb's Breath. Had anyone actually smelled a lamb's breath? Rowley was probably a truer Rasta in the spiritual sense than most who claimed to be, but he never smoked ganja because, he said, the sharp edges were always there whether or not you could see them.
Again Jana sighed. She knew the signs like Unimak weather, dark clouds gathering on the horizon, the flicker of lightning, the rumble of thunder. It was probably her fault, but she found herself growing illogically angry. There were things to be done in the world -- dammed important things -- and somehow she knew that he'd help her if she just found the right magic words.
She peered at the big brass alarm clock -- the cartoon kind with bells on top -- while ignoring the cigarette sacrilege, and tried to banish his second-hand smoke by force of will or telekinesis. "It's early," she murmured
Rowley's voice was a natural growl. "Had a dream," he began, then decided not to display that picture because she would probably interpret it for him... and maybe she'd be right.
Instead, he said, "Thought the generator overheated. Figured if I shut it down, Justin would want to take a piss and couldn’t find his dick in the dark. Then he’d fax a report to Seattle."
Jana smiled at that picture... the dick in the dark, anyway. "He must write a lot of reports."
"Between wasting paper and busting wharf pilings, he keeps a whole gang of lumberjacks busy cutting down spotted owl habitat."
Jana looked shocked -- which was Rowley's intent -- before telling herself it was only a joke. He blew gray smoke which seemed to condense instead of dispersing as it drifted toward the rain-licked window. It formed a spirit-face for a second and stuck out its tongue at Jana. She watched the image fade away and wondered if anthropologists had ever studied comparative cultural senses of humor. When she’d been a little girl they'd had a shaman on Unimak Island, who lived -- strange to say -- in the rusty hulk of a grounded ship on the rocky north-eastern shore. He'd taught the children about the Old Ways... until the new magic of television invaded their world by satellite, and ancestral ghosts had proved no match for Freddie Kruger and Jason Voorhees. Still, she had learned the basics; spirits were everywhere all the time, and you didn't invade their spaces. A few were helpful and might even become your companions or guides, but it was usually safer to focus your eyes on material matters and make believe you didn't see them.
Rowley reached out and stroked back her hair. She moved against him, almost grateful, and lay her head on his chest, her cheek to one of his small, tight nipples... Russel had been asleep when she'd done that to him, she told herself firmly. She smiled and felt safe, lulled by the patter of rain on the roof. Rowley’s scent was unequivocally male with a hint of engine oil... but so was Russel’s. She was just beginning to think about love when he said:
"So, what kind of endangered species you gonna cuddle when I'm gone?"
Jana frowned. "That's not a very nice picture."
Rowley chuckled. "I used to think that's what animism meant.”
She felt annoyed but resolved not to show it. "I'm not an eco-nazi.”
"A planet-raper is anybody who wants to build a cabin in the woods. An environmentalist is somebody who already has one."
"I don't believe that all technology is evil."
"Yeah,” he said. “What if whale oil lamps came back in style?”
She smiled in spite of this blasphemy. Her hand moved over his body, drifting down under the blankets. "There's still time.”
“Whoa, lady," he muttered. "I will not be your sperm whale."
She jerked her hand away. "What?"
"Don't think about whales and sex at the same time.”
“I wasn't thinking of whales, goddammit.”
"Must be hard living up to that name."
"The name has nothing to do with their reproductive organs."
"Sure it does. Penis envy was Ahab's problem. Moby had a bigger dick."
Rowley smiled. Jana had gotten her degree in Marine Biology with a Cultural Anthropology minor at UCLA, and along with some other souvenirs she'd returned to the North with a headful of Valley Girl expressions. His smile widened: this might not be a bad day after all. And she was right, there was time.
Wind gusted outside through glistening pines, and rain beat the window again. "I wish you'd stop smoking," she said.
His shaft had been stirring, but she had harpooned Moby's amorous mood.
“You're Russel's role-model," she added, and was instantly horrified at herself.
The alarm clock rang, end of Round One and saved by the bell. Rowley shut it off, and he and Jana looked at its face in something like relief. Six o’clock. The first train left Portage at nine.
Rowley pouted a perfect smoke ring. "Hear anymore about the rail strike when you were in town yesterday?"
Jana sat up. "It's all about greed."
"What in this world ain't, my sweet?"
"You," she countered.
He only shrugged. "Maybe you just don't know me very well." Rising naked from the bed, he padded to the bathroom on feet as adolescently large as his hands, and Jana watched through the doorway as he splashed water on his face and over the floor before brushing his teeth.
"The lesser races will inherit the earth," he biblically frothed. "What's left of it by then."
Jana ignored that and thought about teeth... maybe her ancestry had made her extra perceptive about such things? Teeth were a survival item in most primitive cultures, and Rowley's teeth were strong and white despite those goddamn cigarettes. A little too large for his face, they were fearsome when he bared them in anger and startling when he grinned... which wasn't a lot these days. She watched him wipe the steamy mirror... probably wouldn't show his reflection. She never tired of watching him; maybe she didn't know him very well? He was like some wild thing you had rescued, brought into your home and allowed to run free, but always kept you wondering if it would bond to its new environment or bite your hand and run away at the earliest opportunity.
Then there was Russel... sort of an anthropomorphic cross between Eddie Munster and Pugsly Addams.
Rain blurred the window, dimming the room to shades of gray and sucking the life from the animal paintings adorning the walls. She remembered her first close encounter with them: they'd been sitting on the railroad wharf over in Whitmore two years ago. It had been a rainy morning like this, windy wild and wetly fresh, and she had driven a friend in her truck to catch the Cordova ferry. What about them had first caught her eye? That they didn't look like tourists? Or fishermen. Or, for that matter, like anyone else she had seen, including down in L.A... and that was saying a lot for sure! A few black people lived in Anchorage, so they hadn’t stood out because of their color, though both wore dreadlocks, a hairstyle she'd only seen Outside. But, something had attracted her: fate perhaps? Pheromones maybe... the wind had been blowing in her direction. Or had it been the incongruity? A Rastafarian father and son who should have been cracking coconuts on some Jamaican shore, but were sitting on an Alaskan wharf with snow-covered mountains at their backs? It had definitely been the artist in her who had felt the fatal attraction; she had whipped out her sketch pad and tented her parka against the drizzle, hoping to capture them on paper before their banana boat sailed away. She'd been working on their faces before she'd really noticed their eyes -- alarmingly amber and wolfishly slanted -- and wondered why it was so hard to draw them. She had always been good with eyes, bringing life to her animal paintings with just the right touch of shadow and light. But, animal eyes were never ironic. Irony wasn’t a survival trait.
Of course she hand been more impressionable then, her mind expanded, so to speak, by the recent discovery of an alternate universe which had always existed South-Of-Sixty but had never really seemed to be real until she had really seen it. At first it had been like a magical place where the air was warm even at midnight, clothes were adornment instead of protection, and most of the bugs didn't bite or suck blood. She had only seen colorful shadows before, beamed from space to a satellite dish in a colder, grimmer, grayer world where little girls scraped walrus hides to the sounds of hip-hop on a Walkman, or paused to play Sonic at the trading post when buying a gallon of kerosene to light the family lamps.
The expansion hadn't always been pleasant, but had certainly done her a world of good; she had always been able to draw fairly well -- doodles when bored like most kids do, decorating her homework assignments and trying the patience of tired old teachers -- but Art wasn't taught in a one-room school crammed with kids who smelled like fish; and suddenly down in that warm southern land she had found with a shock that she could paint! The discovery was almost traumatic, as if she'd been mute all her life but only because she'd had nothing to say. Pictures had poured from her fingers like magic. It had taken a while to get a grip, to come down from the high of painting all night and missing too many down-to-earth classes before it lost her the scholarship. It was tempting to shift her major -- some of her works were actually selling -- but somehow that didn't seem right. Art was a luxury -- then, anyway -- something you did when your real work was done. And the talent, it seemed, had always been hers; and Oz hadn't given anything to the Tin Man that he hadn't already possessed.
There had been other benefits, too: four years in L.A. had enabled her to return to her roots with a knowledge of The Enemy. Four years of hearing Bart Simpson style "who-gives-a-shit, it's not my fault," and "I didn't do it," had revealed that the climate was warmer down there than most of the people who took it for granted. And, like members of other minorities, Jana had wondered deep inside if white was really the chosen color and rightfully destined to rule the world. A lifetime of being told it was -- subliminally or to her face -- had made it an elusive worm to dig out of her subconscious salmon. She’d been prepared for racism; but it had been the Native Americans who proved to be the least enlightened, most being frauds or wistful-eyed whiners, assimilated into their conqueror's culture but too full of shit to admit it. And sex, she had found, was only the sum of its separate parts no matter the color of Moby's dick.
But, four years later her moose heads were mounted, and she hadn't been trophy-hunting that summer back in her own territory. And yet she had wanted more from Rowley than just his ironic eyes on paper. Her rain-spotted sketch was enough to paint him -- her memory would have sufficed for that -- but somehow she'd wanted him in the flesh. Only for posing, she'd fibbed to herself while recognizing a big green lie. She had never -- engaged -- a model before, and had felt absurd about asking. Fortunately, her truck had been sick -- troubled perhaps by an evil spirit -- and he had looked capable in that department with grease already on his hands. A minute to tighten a battery cable wasn't enough to talk about Art -- inviting him over to see her etchings? -- but the subject of supper, home-cooked of course, had been a natural excuse. She remembered that Rowley had made some remark about whale blubber with Hamburger Helper, which she'd thought as charming as new-puppy mess on a Scotchguarded carpet... then. There had been wine, fruity and white; and his son had consumed it like Kool-Aid, then had tactfully gone out for beer, a two-mile trek down a woodland trial. There had seemed no point in pretending then, and they'd undressed each other like kids on the couch. It had been the only time in her life when she'd wanted a polar bear rug.
She had heard the old proverb about opposites attracting, but she and Rowley hadn't begun like a pair of magnets aimed north and south: he smoked those dammed cigarettes, was an engineer on a corporate tugboat -- and therefore aided The Enemy -- and his only interest in animals was when they were served piping hot on a plate. Yet, she sensed some sort of common denominator somewhere deep inside their souls, and he had accepted what she had offered while artfully dodging the strings attached.
She watched him now in the rainy gray daylight, running long fingers through ropy dreadlocks that often concealed his eyes. She had never asked his age; maybe, as with his old tugboat captain, it was one of those questions you simply didn't, though his son was allegedly fourteen... though listed as sixteen on Company records. Depending upon environment or mood Rowley could look between thirteen to thirty, though liquor store clerks always asked for I.D. Los Angeles had been full of aging boy-men of various races and orientations desperately clinging to long-vanished youth in rather pathetic parodies, but Rowley's demeanor wasn't an act. It was if he had never bought into America's sick obsession with youth and neurotic fear of growing up. Jana had sometimes wondered how many billions of medical dollars had been spent on perfecting Rogaine instead of trying to cure cancer, simply so men could look more like boys. It was said that man is the only animal who knows he will die, but Rowley was more like some wilder thing who would wander through life unaware of its clock. He seemed indifferent to his body, not concerned what it looked like to others as long as it served as his habitat. It was basically boyish and gently defined, long limbs and torso and slenderly-boned, the sort of male shape that ages well but would never have looked very muscular. His back was somewhat swayed like a child's in deference to a prominent tummy, cartoonishly round and cherubically chubby. It blatantly overhung his jeans and gave him the look of an African boy. His skintone was sort of a soot-colored shade that somehow looked dirty even when wet, and suggested a shadowy camouflage pattern for forest or jungle at night. Above his narrow, up-tilted eyes were heavy brows that met when he frowned. His lips were full and usually open, revealing a pair of aggressive front teeth. Though almost the diametrical opposite of every Caucasian conception of handsome, Jana had seen a lot of white women giving him come hither smiles.
She thought about polar bear rugs again.
Rowley returned from the bathroom clad in faded 501 Levis so ebony stained with engine oil that two cycles through an Anchorage laundry hadn't restored them to blue. He sprawled in an overstuffed chair by the bed and fired another Camel. "You coming over with us?"
Her musings disturbed, she answered shortly, "Don't I always?"
An eyebrow lifted. "What's that supposed to mean?"
“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
Rowley blew smoke. "If you got the bitchies..."
Jana turned to a sea otter portrait as if it could make a suggestion. "I've got a headache," she fibbed.
"That time of month?"
Rowley grinned as if knowing she'd lied and watched as she rose and dressed. This made her feel absurdly embarrassed; the sort of sensation some people described when their dog was regarding them naked. She darted a glance to the bedroom doorway, doorless like all the others in the house, but hung with a Navajo blanket which wasn't quite drawn clear across. "I guess Russel is still asleep?" she asked in a tone a little too casual.
If Rowley's grin had been a dog, Jana would have kicked it. "You never know," he said ominously.
That, too, was absurd: she was always telling herself that Russel, though typically oversexed at his age, was probably as indifferent to her body as to her overtures of pax vobiscum. The female forms of his fantasies most likely resembled the Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark poster that hung on his wall. Oh, he peeped whenever he could, but Jana suspected that it was her shape he wanted to see -- even as she spied on his -- as if she would slip and reveal something. What that was she had no clue, but it bothered her just the same.
Rowley lounged in the chair and politely pretended not to be watching. Jana's body was golden-brown like sunlight seen through honey. Her breasts were robust and round, and her figure was full and substantial... voluptuous sometimes came to mind like paintings from the Victorian age. Her hair was long and unrestrained, rippling down like ebony silk and almost reaching her ample waist. Her arms were firm with active muscle, and her legs were strong and solidly sculpted from thirty-one years of walking the earth. Her face was a little narrower than the usual rounded Aleut pattern, with a small button nose and expressive lips over teeth which were often displayed in an smile, especially when she was painting. Her obsidian eyes were ancestrally shaped, somewhere between "almond" and "Oriental" -- though when most people said "Mongolian" it was usually accompanied by "idiot.”
She wore old Levis most of the time -- over thermal underwear in winter -- along with faded flannel shirts and heavy lug-soled boots. She also packed a big Bowie knife on a wide leather belt which was sewn with patterns of black and white beads. The steel wasn't for show, as a couple of good-ol’-boy tourists on dirt bikes had found out the summer before. They'd given the squaw-lady shit, and she'd flashed her glittering silver fang and threatened to slice out their honkey-ass guts for sled-dog supper if they didn't get their terra-terrors the hell off her land in a minute or less.
Not that she had any huskies, but the geeks got the word and tucked tail.
Rowley liked watching Jana, and supposed that he loved her most of the time. But it was an elusive kind love that seemed to shift shapes with the passing of shadows. Love was a hard thing to figure out and you needed a yardstick to measure it.
On a trash-TV show there had once been a little white boy of three, adorably dressed in a KKK robe lovingly made by his hateful mother. He'd professed to hate niggers with slavering rage... but he probably also hated carrots, despite the highly unlikely event of one ever wanting to marry his sister.
Rowley could count the loves in his life on the fingers of one hand and still have a spare, and each had been a different feeling. The first was the love for his father, a pure and unquestioning thing. There were times when he hadn't liked the man, but he still would have willingly died for him. The second had been the sort of love which had left him with a son of his own, also pure in its puppy-sex way, but mostly mindless physical lust in the sweaty sheets of his bed at thirteen. ...Except it had created a life.
The third kind of love was his love for that life, a sort of reversal of roles from the first, the father loving the son.
Rowley could measure the third by the first, though the second was often only the craving for someone beside him at night. A few of those temporary pairings might have been called relationships, though Russel was always wary of them. Even at an early age he was too mature to be jealous, always wise beyond his years in knowing that Rowley had certain needs he naturally couldn't fulfill. But Russel soon became a companion, as if realizing that life was a battle and you guarded the backs of those you loved. A weaker boy would have been a slave -- if a weaker man had needed one -- a sad and servile shell of a child, terrified of being abandoned like so many inner-city boys and willing to suffer any abuse for the slightest sense of security. But Rowley only needed a friend, and Russel seemed to instinctively know it, offering Rowley his strength and comfort, sometimes simply by being there in those small and lonely suicide hours of vivid regrets and dimming dreams, yet never afraid to demand what was his; the right to be loved in return.
When Rowley was seventeen Russel was five, but only in the physical sense, and at times he became like a brotherly equal, which often seemed like the best of both worlds, a father and son without any secrets and few ordeals they hadn't shared. More than that they trusted each other, and trust often translates to faith. Russel naturally didn't need sex, and until about ten had a normal and healthy dislike of girls. He read a lot and watched TV, not to mention surfing the web, which made him a sort of armchair explorer observing the birds and bees. He may not have understood the desires, or why his father would bring a girl home, but forgave him in faith by accepting the ancient parental cliché of "someday, son, you'll understand.” If Rowley had actually been his big brother, the same explanation would of sufficed for spending a lot of time in the bathroom.
Russel's faith was justified by the time he reached the age of twelve, though "bathroom" was only a metaphor as a place of self-satisfaction. He still hadn't fathomed the "real thing,” content for a time to discover himself, but now had a yardstick to measure love by -- at least the basic physical feelings -- and knew why Rowley wanted females. It was only when they stayed for awhile that he started to watch them carefully: he didn't resent these possible prospects -- even the ones who became instant mothers and bought him new clothes and Happy Meals -- he only watched with his wary wolf gaze and eventually found them unworthy. Rowley could see when the verdict was reached, although the accused never could, which often made for a huge howling mess. This thing with Jana had lasted two years, but Russel still seemed to be watching.
Or maybe, thought Rowley, he was. And he may have learned it from Russel. Lately he'd begun to suspect that Jana was still growing inside as all good people should -- although they usually didn't -- while he had reached his natural limits. There were times when he felt like a dog being talked to, trying so hard to understand but simply lacking capacity.
At first he'd thought she would outgrow her righteous rage over planet-rape, as if it was some sort of simple infection she might have picked up on her L.A. safari and which would eventually go away. But it only seemed to get worse. It wasn't recent news to him that the earth in general seemed to be sinking: everything he remembered from birth had been rotten, rusty, or falling apart. It could all be blamed on white people, of course, the superior species, the crowns of creation, who regarded all others as failed experiments in nature's natural research lab. But what did nature define as success? A race that destroyed its own habitat and killed any life-form it didn't like or couldn't exploit for profit? If so, then kindness and compassion were not superior human traits. Was it better to be a racist rat than a loving and lovable dodo bird?
He crushed out his Camel in a tunafish can, a dolphin-safe brand, of course -- the official ashtray, a ceramic sea otter, only existed for decoration -- then headed for the kitchen while Jana laced her boots. He paused to push a blanket aside and peep into Russel's room. Old cigarette smoke flavored the air, along with the feral scent of young male. One oversize foot, a wide little nose and a tangled nest of bushy dreadlocks were all that showed from under a quilt. "Russy?"
The kitchen was a tiny room, added like the bath and bedrooms to what had been a trapper's cabin back when fur was fashionable instead of a target for idiots who threw fake blood on expensive coats and thought they were saving something. Rain rattled hard on the rusty tin roof, and the place was a perfect movie-set for a woodland cabin's kitchen... meaning it didn't look much different from a similar space in a ghetto apartment. An ancient fridge stood in a corner, straight from the old Honeymooners show with its motor and cooling coils on top. Rough pine shelving lined the walls, loaded with cans, bottles and jars; enough for six months of being snowed-in. There was a sink with a leaky pump, and an elderly Volcano range designed for wood or diesel fuel. Jana cooked with wood, of course; though Rowley had more than once pointed out that the oil burned cleaner and contributed less to the Greenhouse Effect. But wood was free and "uncorrupted,” while petroleum was demon piss.
He opened one of the oil valves and struck a match to a burner. A green enamel coffee pot sat in the old yellowed sink, and he worked the pump to fill it, while deftly dodging leaky spurts. Jana made Eskimo coffee, the kind you could chew on for hours. He snagged a jar of Folgers and spooned a potent wake-up measure into a trio of smiley-face mugs. Then he drifted into the living room while waiting for the water to boil, sitting down on the sagging sofa which faced a massive fireplace. The great stone mouth still gave out heat, though gloomy and gray with last night's ashes.
Like his head, he thought, brushing the dreadlocks out of his eyes: there were times when he felt like most of his life had been spent waking up with a headful of ashes. A month ashore with Jana lately and he couldn't wait to get back on the boat. He glanced around: the room was every redneck's dream of a rustic hunting lodge -- almost -- log walls chinked with mud and cement, massive rafters to support a snow-load, but no musty moose heads or rifles in racks. A huge picture window looked out on a valley where waves of wind tousled glistening trees. The window was incongruously modern, thermal glass and aluminum-framed, but Jana had wanted a view of her world through something more lucid than oiled buckskin. Her easel, also a high-tech item, and adorned with her most recent project -- yet another baby seal -- stood skeleton-like at the window, while shadows from the streaming glass threw rippling patterns around the room. Her books were everywhere else in the place, filling board shelves, stacked in corners, and piled upon a pine plank floor that seemed to remember its polar bear rug. There was also a big-screen Sony TV, a Pioneer stereo with sizable speakers, surrounded by a low-tech clutter of rustic northland junk... kerosene lanterns, wooden-snowshoes, and a dog sled ostensibly being restored. Surprisingly, to him at least, the cabin had electricity, but the wires went down with the first heavy snow and stayed that way until spring. He'd installed a Lister generator in its own little shed outside -- music and movies helped a lot to make it through twenty-hour nights -- and Russel's computer and video games kept him cheerfully sane and generally sober when caged for days by nature’s rule.
The walls were covered with Jana's paintings, animals mostly, whales and dolphins, beavers and bears, and cuddly little baby seals, along with mountains and rocky seascapes. They hung there awhile in retrospect while she fussed with finishing touches, and then were sold at Native shops around the Kenai Peninsula. She had also done a few spirit things -- keeping the details soft and hazy because spirits "don't like their shapes clearly shown" -- but she seldom painted a human. He'd only seen three since he'd met her, and all were here in this room. One portrayed some wrinkled old coot in feathers and fur, supposedly a shaman... though he looked more like that dirty old man suburban parents warned about. Another was of an Aleut boy, husky and heavy but not really fat, standing shirtless in jeans and boots up to his knees in emerald water tending a set-net on some sandy shore. But, the sunlight around him seemed too golden, the sparkling water too crystal green, and the sky too blue in the infinite distance, leaving some doubt as to whether the boy was supposed to be real or a youthful spirit.
Rowley resented the pictures slightly; all in their ways were reminders that his life had been lived on the dark side, behind the facades of the huge movie-set that people of privilege called their world. He knew jack about Art and admitted it freely, but her stuff was good. Way too good to be hanging here and only seen by the native elite, or cheaply sold in tourist-traps set by her friends along asphalt trails to snare the passing dollars. She made a comfortable living -- aside from his contributions, of course -- but it made him inexplicably angry to know they were usually bought by people who only thought they were pretty, who couldn't understand they were real, and who only saw their wild beauty because it was caged in a frame. They bought them to brighten their modern-day dens, like clueless crows on a scavenger hunt who couldn't see any difference between genuine gold and Country Club caps since both were equally shiny. Her paintings sold fast when she sacrificed them, like New-Age placebos for polar bear rugs.
There were forty-ounce bottles arranged in a row on the heavy homemade coffee table, something a kid would do to keep score, and Russel had done it last night... getting sloppily drunk on the eve of a voyage was a time-honored sailor's tradition. Rowley tossed one into the hearth, knowing Jana would just dig it out and truck it to town to recycle... polluting the planet with carbon-monoxide to save a bit of silica. He watched the ashes settle, then scanned the pictures again. Since she spent all her money -- and most of his -- on eco-crusading these days, he'd suggested she peddle her paintings Outside where at least she'd get paid a fair price. But then she'd asked, so innocently that she should have been locked in a cage and observed, “wasn't that selling-out? And what would her people think?”
No doubt her people wouldn't approve, though probably not for spiritual reasons; earthy commissions from selling her works kept many a native business afloat. She could have used the extra green; her latest crusade was a research boat rusting away down in Seward that some wet college wimp named Jonathan Smith -- Jonathan, not John or Johnny -- had bought with his rich parents' money and was trying to salvage so he and his converts could sail away and save anything that wasn't a part of the human food chain. She'd met this St. Francis a few months ago and -- come to think of it now -- that was just about when the fur started flying. Of course, Rowley and Jana had seldom agreed on most of her ecological issues, though at least they had usually set them aside and agreed to disagree in peace, but lately the odds of their survival as a latter-day functional family-unit had begun to seem about the same as the saber-tooth tiger making a comeback.
He tossed another bottle and watched the ashes blackly scatter, revealing an angry red ember. An ancient ex-tugboat like Jonathan Smith's newly rechristened Arctic Avenger -- formerly the Rhinoceros, circa 1912 -- was nothing more than a hole in the water lined with rusty iron plates; and fools poured money into such holes. Jonathan's parents must have capped their faucet because he was begging with artful emails -- Jana providing the Art, of course -- to anyone on the web who would listen, but the only thing his boat had saved was a ship-breaker's time to cut her up.
Rowley watched the ember die. Maybe playing Captain Planet kept Jana from buying a rocket-launcher and stalking moose hunters or something? Everyone ought to have a hobby, and most were therapeutic. Word on the waterfront recently hinted that Jonathan's gang of eco-crusaders was rated on the radical fringe by organizations like Greenpeace, and barred from the clique of elitist tree-huggers who already owned woodland cabins.
Rowley yawned and stretched. A magazine lay beneath the bottles, and big black letters bellowed up, magnified by the glass: DO PEOPLE REALLY SPEND MILLIONS OF DOLLARS TO SAVE THE SIX-TOED SALAMANDERS? ...PEOPLE REALLY DO!
He slipped it out and glanced through the pages: some profiteering planet-polluter was patting itself on its corporate ass for cleaning up its own waste dumps. Sounded a lot like the Nazi Party building a daycare for Jewish kids. This wasn't Jana's usual read, though its cover displayed a baby harp seal so cute you wanted to take it to bed and perform unnatural acts. But the magazine was nothing more than a company claiming it gave a shit about something besides a profit. Exxon put out a classier rag with lies that were much more convincing. So did Aleister Tug & Barge, the company Rowley worked for: every crewman got a copy, and so did Vulcan, the boat herself, lest any of their employees doubt their company really cared. Sometimes the deckhands looked at the pictures, which always included a "secretary,” usually very well-endowed, and generally taking her paid vacation bikini-clad on a tropical isle. This ‘zine was printed by Grizco, Inc., and not even on recycled paper. Rowley recognized the logo, the snarling head of a grizzly bear with a lightning-bolt clenched in its teeth. They had an Alaskan division, a small refinery north of Fairbanks that specialized in machinery oils. Their handful of rusty old railroad tankers made weekly trips by barge to Seattle. One of their shabby supply ships had broken down in Cordova last summer and Vulcan had taken the tow. Rowley had heard of corporations that ran a division supposed to lose money, thereby saving them taxes, and judging by their local equipment this might have been Grizco's scam. Their ship had been a floating junk-heap and her chief engineer an obvious drunk... though a lot of engineers were. According to this magazine, another of their foreign divisions made infant formula in Africa and had selflessly donated tons of the stuff to starving Zimbabwean refugees.
Jana came in with two mugs of coffee, silent as cats despite her big boots. He was left-handed, so the smiley-face was wasted on him and simpered at her instead. She sat in a chair instead of beside him, and he wondered if that was a sign.
Over the hearth was a painting she'd done of Rowley and Russel based on her sketch. Russel had grown a lot since then, mostly in unattractive ways, but Rowley hadn't aged a day. She had a strange thought and looked hard at the picture but it hadn't aged, either. Like the old shaman and the boy on the shore, it was one of her works that wasn't for sale.
Rowley followed her gaze. It took no shaman to guess her thoughts; that faraway utopian look of how the world could be, if only...
He held up the magazine. "Finally figure you really can't beat 'em, so you gonna join 'em?"
"What? ...Oh." Jana sipped coffee and shrugged. "It was at the laundry. I like the cover."
"That's stealing, ain't it?"
Jana frowned. "I spend a lot of money there. Washing those oily clothes of yours."
"Surprised you don't do 'em by hand in the creek."
"Don't be absurd."
Rowley glanced at her work on the easel, comparing it to the magazine cover. "Thought you only painted from life?"
"It's not as if I'm copying.”
"So, you didn't really read this? Just brought it into your home, not knowing where it might have been?"
Jana made an impatient sound and snatched the magazine out of his hand. Frowning again, she scanned the index then, scowling, she flipped through the pages. "This is a lot of self-serving shit!"
Rowley smiled. "You gotta admit that going on record as being against the clubbing to death of cute little baby seals was a pretty brave stand to take."
"Didn't you read any of this?"
Rowley shrugged. "Too many scientific terms, like 'environmentally-conscious reconfiguration of indigenous species habitat'."
That, too, was absurd, she knew. Rowley and Son were amazingly literate, though it wasn't something they liked to admit. Besides his eclectic taste in books -- Charles Dickens to Thorne Smith -- Rowley pored over marine engine manuals. He had a whole trunkful, though most seemed long obsolete. Russel read comics and Lovecraft -- H.P., the writer of horror -- along with steamy sex novels.
Jana snorted. "'Clean up their own waste sites!' All this means is they've found somewhere else to dump their filthy poison!"
Rowley made no reply, and Jana scanned through the pages again before looking triumphant. "What about this? I happen to know that all that goddamn infant formula those bastards donated to Zimbabwe had been stored for so long in South African warehouses it wasn't fit for human consumption! The South African government ordered Grizco to destroy it. So what did they do instead? Donated it so someone would haul it away for free! Those refugee children were already so sick from cholera and dysentery they could have died from drinking that shit and no one will ever know! And those greedy bastards look like saviors! ...And Grizco supported Apartheid. Jonathan told me."
"Of course he'd know," said Rowley.
"You don't believe him?"
Rowley considered the options, then shrugged. "I heard it all before; the world is doomed unless we revert to noble vegetarian savages. ...Your people were vegans, weren't they? Never ate anything furry and cute."
Jana sighed. Mentioning Africa was always risky. She sometimes suspected that Rowley was homesick for what had been stolen a long time ago and didn’t exist anymore.
Then Russel came in with his own mug of coffee, seeming slightly sulky to her, maybe because she'd forgotten to bring it, or maybe because he'd been drinking last night, though that seldom had an affect on him due to a lifetime of practice. She gave him a smile, and he might have acknowledged by shrugging a shoulder. She glanced again at the baby seal before tossing the magazine into the hearth. Russel watched the ashes settle as if sensing the latest disharmony.
He wore only jeans, thuggishy large, indecently low, and stained and streaked with rust and grease like camouflage for a junkyard. Their ragged cuffs concealed his big feet and dragged behind on the floor. His bushy locks had never been cut, framing his face like a lion's mane and trailing nearly down to his butt. He resembled his father in many ways, sooty skintone looking dirty, triangular-shaped Aboriginal face, a broad but almost bridgeless nose, and an eye of alarming amber that slanted like a wolf's. ...Yes, an eye, for he had only one. The empty place where the other had been was covered by a black leather patch like an African version of Bazooka Joe. It was probably natural to ask, but Jana never had.
But, except for sharing shades of skin, the resemblance ended below the neck. Rowley's shape was long and smooth except for the cartoonish bulge of his belly, a kind of exaggerated Bugs Bunny shape, while Russel was like a flabby pubescent, a typical modern American boy who’d never lifted anything more than a Double Quarter-Pounder With Cheese, or used any muscles except in his fingers when changing channels or playing games. He wasn't massively overweight, unless measured by current health-nazi standards where even a chubby child was “obese,” but he looked like a kid created from pudding by slopping it over a small skeleton. His belly was incredible in how far down it hung; it was like another part of him, an almost seperate appendage; he had to hoist it up to piss, and it rippled and quivered with any movement, including merely drawing breath. His navel was like a smart-ass smile, and his chest was a pair of bobby balloons, their nipples hardly much darker than the rest of his sooty shade and their tips inverted like soft little slits.
Jana sometimes wondered if her vision of him was too unforgiving: most of her friends seemed to think he was cute, like something that squeaked when you squeezed it. She defended herself by rationalizing that the artist in her wanted balance, and her models for that were Aleut boys who tended toward shapes like burly barrels if fed on traditional foods; though there were many Indian kids who were extremely obese these days, stuffing down civilized sugar and starch until almost unable walk. But they hoisted their bulks aboard ATVs, or snowmobiles in winter, and rode to the nearest trading post for daily galas of garbage-food gorging and orgies of video games. Seeing such children angered her in much the same way -- she supposed -- as Rowley would feel about youth of his race smoking crack or shooting shit. There was little difference in Jana's mind between Native-American men and women lying drunk in tavern doorways or boys and girls who were drowning in fat and sprawled outside convenience stores too stuffed with Twinkies to waddle away.
Russel was surprisingly strong, almost supernaturally so, but he seemed to possess no pride in his shape... whatever that really was.
When they had returned from the boat last month Jana had offered to paint his picture -- the greatest gift that she could bestow -- if he'd lose a little weight. He'd looked at her with that one wolfish eye as if she had asked him to lose it, too. She was sure he hadn't told Rowley, though whether he'd simply dismissed what she'd said as the foolish faux pas of a well-meaning nut, or was saving it to use against her was impossible to guess. He seemed to have taken no offense -- though he could have been plotting revenge -- but he wasn't resentful in general, doing his duties without being asked, dumping the ashes and sharing the chores. Sometimes he volunteered to cook, something he did very well... but, cynically-speaking, that wasn't surprising. He even chopped wood when he didn't have to, shirtless whenever the weather permitted, but seeming to know that she watched him in secret, showing his strength with powerful strokes while somehow keeping something concealed. Lizzie Borden might have looked like that while thoughtfully sharpening her axe.
Russel came over with a hand on his belly to keep it from swinging side-to-side like a blubbery pendulum... bridges had been known to collapse when marching soldiers built up a rhythm. He plopped on the couch beside Rowley and shaped himself to Rowley's side.
"Ready to go?" Rowley asked.
Russel gulped coffee, heavily sugared and goldenly creamed, and glanced at the wood-cased clock on the mantle. "I packed last night.” He waited for Rowley to rise, then followed him out of the room. His dusky behind above sagging jeans seemed to moon Jana a half-assed farewell. She wondered if he’d done it on purpose, but she’d made a lot of mistakes about him and probably shouldn’t make many more.
She took the mugs to the kitchen, then got her old parka from its hook by the door. It had been her grandmother's, sewn of sealskin and trimmed in fox fur, its hem and cuffs brightly beaded. A few tourists gave her disgusted looks for wearing it in Anchorage... white people dissing her for wearing what she had the right to wear! Was she supposed to burn it now because they had changed their rules? Far from appeasing the spirits of those dutifully-honored animals, such an act of wanton waste would bring them back to haunt her.
Rowley and Russel returned, each with a seabag over a shoulder. Both were clad in big battered Nikes and black hoodie sweatshirts faded to gray. Rowley wore a brown leather jacket, and Russel a similar model that couldn’t be zipped over his belly, which hung from underneath his shirt and over his crotch like a smiling loincloth. They carried their bags out to the Jeep, and Jana started to follow, but stopped to recover the magazine, shaking off the ashes. Jonathan might want to see it: he hated Grizco with slavering fury, though his rage included Standard Oil, Exxon, Shell, DuPont and Dow, as well as the whole Industrial Complex. Even Jana had to admit that he stood as much chance of thwarting their schemes as the first mammalian mouse would have had of stopping a charging T-Rex. You had to sight on smaller targets, causes that were closer to home, sort of like being a locavore, if you hoped to accomplish anything; and while Grizco was definitely close to home and was no doubt polluting as hard as it could, its Alaska division was inland-based and didn't seem like appropriate game for a "bunch seagoing of seal-savers”... to use Rowley's words.
She left the cabin’s door unlocked, an old Alaskan tradition.
End of excerpt. This book is available on Kindle.