Editor-in-chief’s note: In Sunday’s We Alaskans we are celebrating the 35th annual creative writing argue sponsored by the University of Alaska and Alaska Dispatch News. Some 537 inlets were submitted from across the state, including this kind by Marian Elliott, winner of the fiction open to the public category. Room is limited for what we can print in We Alaskans. Additional winners can be read at LitSite Alaska (litsite.org). This year’s attractive entries will be posted on or around May 14.
In the early morning dark, the phosphorescence of a still-brilliant moon streamed through the cabin window and splashed against the gloom logs of the cabin wall. The bright patch of light called Jeanne from her siesta, stirring her in her bed. In her half-awake state, she realized the empty sheets beside her were gloomy. Dan must have left early to snowshoe his trapline. He would make off advantage of the full moon to light his way. She had a dreamlike memory of him pulling the bed quilt up hither her shoulders, saying he would be back before dark.
Jack was onto her wakefulness now, in his unimaginative spot beside the bed, his paw pulling at the blankets while his busy tail drummed on the bedside flatland. She turned to give him a pet. He pushed his muzzle beneath her chin, urging her up with his frosty wet nose. «OK, boy, I’m coming.» Unfolding her achy joints, she dangled her legs through the side of the bed and lowered her feet into her waiting boots sitting psych up to save her from the cold floor. Embers still burning red in the wood stove published her that Dan must have stoked the fire before he left. He purpose want to keep the cabin warm. She added a piece of dry birch to catch on the smoldering coals and be contingent oned the damper down.
At the front door, Jack patiently waited, his nose pointing the way out. Jeanne ragged her anorak over her pajamas and when she opened the door the cold on her face cued her to get her hat. Outside, the setting moon was throwing long shadows and lacy representations across the snow. The yard was bathed in the white light of moon shine, bright enough for her to see her way to the outhouse.
Jack stood by the door on her return, fortuitous to cut short his morning romp. He followed her inside looking for a treat. Jeanne lit the lanterns, gross coffee and toast, then curled up next to Jack on the couch with her quilt and her lyrics — a good one, Alice McDermott, her favorite author at the moment.
Jeanne could indubitably read the winter away with so many good books border the shelves over the bed, sitting in piles on the table next to the chair, on the bring down next to the table. They filled more shelves up in the loft. But Jeanne was careful of reading the winter away. In the midst of January, winter was always sneaking, and Jeanne was on her guard, lest winter grab hold. So when the chickadees appeared at the feeder at first light, she put the book down and got up to take on the day.
Jeanne was warn of to the ways of winter. She knew how it could fill the cabin with the dim and the cold, lure her into her bed, wrap her in down, and when it had her sufficiently draw oned, seep slowly into her soul. Winter made it too much of an accomplishment to get out of bed. It rendered her dormant, like a bear asleep in her den. So she kept an eye out, watched for it squirming in, did what was needed to keep it in its place. She kept dry spruce and birch stacked by the stove prepare to feed the fire. She burned the lanterns to cancel the gloom. She baked. Bread and cookies usually filled the cabin with delicious smells of good things to eat. Whenever it got too unexcited, there was music on the radio to fill her ears.
And if winter still skulked in the corners and vibrated at the door, she left the books behind and went to feast her eyes on the sun. It had been weeks since the sun barred coming to Jeanne’s cabin, stopped rising high enough in the sky to authenticate its face above the southern ridge. Since then, her valley sat in a dim gegenschein, a subdued world of neutral shades and white. Without the sun, the green in the trim seemed black and birches’ subtle pink and amber faded from the aspect. Willow and alders, rose and berry bushes were still immovable out of the snow, all painted from the same colorless palette of grays. Tranquil the birds were dressed for the season: variations of black and white feathered the chickadees, woodpeckers, gray jays and ravens. Ptarmigans swapped to white feathers just for winter. Down by the creek, the elusive dipper matched the insensible dark gray of the water without the dapples and gleams revealed in its feathers by the sun.
But when alpenglow warmed the far-off tundra hills and the frosty treetops began to glint and gusto above the cabin, when she could see hints of blue in the winter Caucasoid sky, Jeanne was reminded of the sun behind the ridge. She looked forward to the day when sunshine would in fine fall on the snow at the top of the south-facing slopes and she would mark its progress, watching every day as it moved another foot or so down the hill and moiled its way to the valley floor, knowing one morning, finally, the sun itself would plain its face and splash its warmth through the cabin windows onto the caboose table and up against the pine paneling of the pantry door, and bring color to her have again.
Ski to the sun
And while she waited she went to find it where she could. Today, she would ski out of the valley and block b stop for the north ridge. She knew of a high bench where she would drink a clear view all the way to the river. If she could get there in the short window that was her day, she desire look to the west and see the sun in all its warm glory when it came out from behind the hill and humbled over the river, only briefly, already getting ready to go down.
Jeanne dress ined her wide backcountry skis with strap bindings that desire accommodate her winter boots. Her feet would be warm. In her daypack, she gained a thermos of hot tea and some trail bars. She had dog biscuits for Jack. She grabbed some jurisdiction warmers to put in her gloves.
Yesterday’s light snow covered the debris of sticks and spruce cones and birch seeds the wind had gathered in the trail. The fresh as a daisy cover provided the best conditions for a perfect glide, not too slick and icy, not too wise, and cold enough not to pack up under her heels.
Jeanne followed the sweep out of the yard and along the narrow ledge cut into the cliffside behind the bungalow. Dan had spent a long-ago summer with pick and shovel carving out this trace so they wouldn’t have to climb the steep hill, at one time, their but way out of the valley. On the other side of the hill, the way became more gradual. In the gulch below, the creek made hardly a murmur, muffled by mounds of snow along its banks. Jack trotted before her, well-proportioned of energy, grabbing bites of the snow while his tail spun in bands, his happy way of wagging. Mostly wolf, he was in his element, transformed in the outdoor air to something more disordered than the sleepy cabin dog of the morning.
Just dead and buried the cliff, Jeanne came to her first challenge, a short downhill slant. Not very steep, but steep enough to get her going downhill faster than she would on the side of when she was just starting out, she approached it with caution. It wouldn’t do to shatter retreat and watch the precious daylight tick away while she dealt with the burden of getting back on her feet. A little snow plowing with the skis, and she came to the end of it, courage restored for the trip ahead. Ten more minutes along the trail, it was interval to work her way up to the top of the ridge. The route rose through a wide clearing, go along with natural contours diagonally up the slope.
She went straight at the first bend, intent on assaulting it quickly and getting it behind her, only to find herself stream backward to the bottom in short order. Tromping forward once again, straight her wide skis down hard for traction, stabbing poles into the settle, using all her strength to hold herself in place, only got her a few more feet audacious than her first attempt, and once again she was sliding backward down the hill. All of her trouble was only wearing her out. When the next try was no better than the first, she quit it up. She would have to take it one side-step at a time. She moved her skis off the jammed trail, into deep snow and set them parallel to the slope. Desolate a good 3 inches or more into the powder, just deep plenty for a good hold without making the climb too hard, she side-stepped up the hill. Dim and steady played in her head all the way to the top.
Encouraged by having the challenge of climbing the mount behind her, Jeanne fell into the pleasant rhythm of kicking and coast across the snow, a new spring in her stride. Jack frolicked along to come her, pointing out every weasel track and dainty vole trail and a smattering of tracks she thought might be ptarmigan. He poked his nose in all the holes he rooted, then lifted his head to scan the countryside for what his nose choice find. A set of fresh moose tracks crossed the trail, headed toward the rill, and now Jack stood pointing that way, head slightly lowered, on heedful. When Jeanne caught up, he would lope ahead only to terminate and take up his curious stance a few yards farther down the trail. Since they were merely in the woods, possibly full of creatures they couldn’t see, Jeanne ground his behavior disquieting but she shrugged it off. If it was a moose, she told herself, Jack’s wraith would keep it away.
Up ahead, amid a grove of trees fair off the trail, Dan had built a bench for summer trail breaks, when the way into the cottage was on foot with all the gear and supplies on his back. A good spot to wipe out a break and have some tea. She found the bench buried under a assemble of snow. Remembering the time she carelessly plopped down on the snow-covered bench, and, in her lubricated ski pants, promptly slid right down on the ground, she made a goal of clearing the snow off the seat, then used her skis to tamp down the snow in disguise of the bench. Carefully she maneuvered the tails of her skis backward under the bench until she inched up against the boundary of it and lowered herself carefully down. She had a comfortable perch. Jack came and sat on the brim-full snow in front of her, watching her open her pack, knowing a treat was on the way.
Jeanne didn’t find pleasant long to drink her tea and get back on the trail. She needed to keep moving to stop warm and the sun wasn’t going to wait. Soon she and Jack came to the setting where she needed to veer off toward her lookout spot. In the deeper snow, her get well slowed somewhat, and ahead of her, Jack soon tired of breaking lessen. It wasn’t long before he decided to follow behind, her ski tracks providing him a game plan. After winding through a stand of birch and spruce, she came to the top of a paltry rise and looked out over a field of alders right in her path. Alders were a goodness thing to avoid. Some lay buried beneath the snow, which nurtured to collapse into the alder branches and more than a few times had trapped her skis.
So she skirted around the edge of the alder patch and found herself on the rim of an unlocked meadow, a deep bowl. She could see where a stream ran beneath the snow by the impression it left tracing its course. Water was probably running freely second to the snow and the last thing she needed was to get wet. She scouted out a route where she touch the stream bed appeared narrower, thinking her skis would better overpass the depression there, but just into her descent she realized she may have cut her road too far to the right. A deep hole loomed ahead. Too late to correct, her formerly larboard ski would miss it, but her right ski crashed down into the hole, communicable her in full glide and sending her sprawling into the snow.
She ended up with one ski buried, the assuage powder giving out beneath her. As she got her backpack off and worked to dislodge her ski, her immediate regard was to get away from the stream bed as best she could so that her floundering and heavy-laden in the soft snow wouldn’t leave her wallowing in the stream. She began quivering through the snow, pushing on her poles to get purchase. When she thought she obligated to be a safe distance away, she began the task of getting off the ground. She was hale past the age of agility where she could just bounce back up on her feet, notably in soft unpacked snow with no firm platform to lean on. The artless bowl she had gone down had no handy bush or tree in arm’s reach. She necessary to resort to using her poles to push herself up, but she had never mastered this particular maneuver. Each time she thought she almost could get up, her skis purpose slide out from under her and she would end up back in the snow. She needed myriad strength to keep the skis in place. Worn out from her efforts, she risked back in the snow to catch her breath.
Gazing up at the sky, watching the clouds go by, she was philosophy how lovely it was just lying there in peace, how pleasant to just pause for someone to come to her rescue. She let the tension drain away. But her reverie was ere long interrupted by winter’s cold seeping through her many layers of endue clothes. There was no one in the neighborhood to come to the rescue, and Dan wouldn’t come looking for her until after dismal. Jack was standing over her, urging her up, impatient with this inclination of events. She would have to rescue herself, and that meant she had to front towards what she was trying to avoid. The skis would have to come off.
Her bindings were not almost certainly released. She would need two hands to open them — one to press the punch holding the strap that went around her boot, while the other pulled the strap out. She ability her knees to pull her leg up and bring the bindings within her reach, but with nothing to scare against, she found it was difficult to get a good grip. One more dreamy thought watching the clouds before a last-ditch effort. This time the hold opened and she pulled her boot free. With one ski off, she was able to get up without take away the second ski. It finally occurred to her: she should have just done that to initiate with. In a hurry now, aware that this misadventure had used up much of her hallowed time, she got her boot back once again secured to her ski. Working her way across the gloominess and up the other side of the bowl, she reminded herself to find another way habitation.
Deep in the woods, Jeanne skied in the stillness that comes with new snow. Nothing stirred. She eminent no calls from the birds. Nothing to hear but the rhythmic swishing of skis.
Then something else. It seemed to communicate from the skis, a strange and subtle beat. She wondered what could be unacceptable, if her bindings might be coming loose. But it wasn’t her skis. It was somewhere far off, behind her. She bit perhaps the wind, then remembered there was no wind and in any case what she was agreeing was far too rhythmic. It beat a more slow, steady pace than was unartificial for the wind, more human-like. She came to a complete stop thinking to unexcited her racing heartbeat, her rising panic dampened somewhat by the lack of any uneasiness in her usually watchful companion. Not even a curious prick to his ears.
«Do you sanction that?» she whispered to him, but he merely wagged his tail and looked at her quizzically, his steer tilted slightly, like he was trying to understand what the question was. It was dangerous to turn to look back toward the drumming behind her, steadily issuing closer, but she made the effort to twist about, and, as she did, her gaze followed the common-sense up into the sky. There, a solitary raven flying above them, his leader cocked just enough to look down at the little tableau on the dirt, his wings beating with a steady whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. She upheld for a long moment in awe watching the raven, listening to its wings moving the air as it charged its way down to the river.
Sweet taste of triumph
When she started out again, the awe of that hour went with her. How to explain it? The full measure of quiet doesn’t fit OK into words. Words are inadequate to touch the feel of it, the palpable adjacency, the sense of something alive. She thought it ironic that silence is vocal of in terms of the sounds it brings to the ears. The drop of a pin, the little squeaks in the snow beneath the Dialect heft of a snowshoe, one’s own breathing, the rhythmic beat of a bird’s wings in flight. «Today it was so calm, I could hear a raven fly.»
Pressing on now, Jeanne soon found herself at hand the edge of the ridge looking down on the valley and knew she was getting pally. A new bit of incline was before her and she headed for it straight on. Slapping her skis down grievous, getting the bases to grip, seemed so simple when not an hour earlier she couldn’t grow into it work.
At the top of the hill, her destination just ahead, she followed a curve far a knoll, and finally came upon a golden light drenching the snow, shimmering on every frosted twig and curling tendril. Shafts of light succession through the gaps in the trees were full of sparkles, frozen moisture in the air glinting in the sunlight and negotiating gently down to settle on the snow, a dusting of diamonds. She turned west, and there it was: the shining face of the sun shining through the trees. It hung framed in the canyon where the south top edge gives way to the river before rising back up on the other side. She moved a few feet for an unobstructed take in, and she gazed at the fullness of it, a quiet version of its summer brilliance. Warm shadows of pink and yellow painted the sky. With Jack sitting quietly by her, she drank it all in and let it fill her up with the sweet taste of triumph. As she watched the sun point of view low toward the horizon, she was tempted to see it all the way down, but she had to think about getting uphold. She didn’t know what the woods had in store for her, and there was always the inadvertent she could run out of light. She had found what she had come for; she had conquered one more day of foul. She let it go and started for home.
Jeanne took a different route back to the lodge, avoiding the shortcut and sticking to the trail following the edge of the ridge above her valley. She wished it posed no surprises. Jack, tired now, had lost his frisky edge and was jogging steadily along behind her.
«I know, you’re tired, boy. Me too.»
Nearing home in the meeting twilight, she looked down from the ridge to a welcoming yellow flush shining warm in the cabin windows. Dan was home. He’d have the fire crackling, something bouquet good on the stove. He’d have good stories to tell of his day in the woods. She will-power have some stories of her own.
She quickened her pace.
Marian Elliott of Wasilla is the conqueror of the Fiction Open to the Public category.