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In Sitka, Alaska, the bizarre death of a big-game hunter years before is investigated by investigator Cecil Younger, who uncovers a many-layered mystery involving the folklore and mythology of the local Tlingit Indians.
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John Straley lives in Alaska with his small son and his wife, a marine biologExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
SITKA, ALASKA, OCTOBER
My head is a cup left out
on a stormy autumn night;
half full of water, and a spider.
I had botched my seventeen syllables, my money was gone, and my only credit card was missing. The worst of it was I didn’t remember if it was stolen or given away. I sat on the green bench in front of the Pioneer Home with my wallet sitting in my hand, as useless as a ticket for a ferry I had just missed. I felt like I had a spider digging into my inner ear, and a fur-bearing animal trying to claw its way out of my stomach. This was the beginning of an extraordinarily bad day. Even if it wasn’t raining.
I’ve tried other hangover cures besides haiku. Once, I had grabbed the back of the radio that was chained to the bed of my hotel room in Rock Springs, Wyoming, hoping, as the voice said, that “the blessed power of Jesus” would fill my soul. Besides a brief jolt of 110—nothing. I’ve tried reading poetry in hopes that the sludge of alcohol would melt into the atmosphere. This morning I had found a book by Wendell Berry flopping in the bottom of my bed like a cold hot-water bottle. The woman who used to love me left it on my bedside table before leaving me. I had thrown it in my pocket before going out. Tempting fate. But no jolt of clarity came; I never got past the inscription. In green ink she had written, “There is nowhere to stand but in absence, no life but in the fateful light.” She was cute, and now a Christian. Her skin was as white as a sea anemone, and as soft as the pool of warm air you pass through while rowing across the bay. I didn’t know why in the hell she had written that.
Once, I’d thought that I could cure a hangover by swimming in the cold water off my house. I’d eased my body into the Pacific Ocean that joins the Gulf of Alaska just past the channel: numbness, and needles of pain, like remembering and forgetting all at once. Going into the ocean, my feet, my legs, my testicles; it seemed like such a tight fit.
I broke off a piece of bread from a two-day-old sandwich that was tucked into my windbreaker and flipped it onto the cement sidewalk. The raven watching me dropped into a crowd of plump pigeons and snatched it away. A large black bird with a gently curving beak, he sat on the back of my bench, cackling like a fiend. I looked at him carefully and noticed he had a loop of red thread hooked around his left leg. Maybe someone had tried to snare him: a kid with a long stick and a mound of bait, waiting, waiting for the bird to drop and then losing him as soon as the slack was pulled. Raven the trickster: the missing piece of darkness.
The Pioneer Home is an old folks’ home run by the state of Alaska. I had an appointment to see one of the residents but I was sitting outside killing time while they carefully made their way around their breakfast. I thought of their bran cereal and coffee. I thought of the brass ship’s clock that ticks loudly and unheard in the corner. I had about ten minutes.
I flipped a piece of cheese to the raven and tried to run down last night’s events. I remembered bumping into Wynton Duarte. Wynton is an unsuccessful drug dealer and decent storyteller, but yesterday he was taking and not giving. There is a parity that must be maintained with people who tell stories for a living and Wynton had wanted to know the story about a particular police informant who was rumored to be in town.
The home looks like a stately old seaside hotel. It’s bordered by flower gardens and lawns that sit in the middle of town across from the post office. The post office is the center of the community where most of the eight thousand people in Sitka still come to pick up their mail. Next to it is the hill where the official transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States took place and where Alexander Baranof, the manager of the Russian American Company, built his first leaky-roofed cabin. A stone wall borders the lawns of the home. It runs at waist height along the two main streets that meet in the corner at the center of town. Katlian is named for the Tlingit warrior who almost whipped the Russian thugs with a blacksmith’s hammer, the other is named for Abraham Lincoln.
It’s on this wall that many of Sitka’s pink-cheeked youths, including Wynton Duarte, sit and drink rum and smoke reefer, plotting their many small and unobtrusive crimes. When a tour ship comes in to dump hundreds of rain-jacketed, camera-laden tourists, the youths are encouraged by the friendly small-town police officers to recreate elsewhere. Often, they will move their parties up into one of the deserted Russian cemeteries, drinking rum and listening to chainsaw guitar riffs from their tape players. They sit on the overturned gravestones in the dense forest, their music drifting into town like the sound of machinery from a clear cut.
I’d been drinking for a while, maybe days, but last night I’d found myself with Duarte and some guys off a black cod boat sitting on the wall drinking apple wine mixed with grain alcohol, and after several drinks it occurred to someone that we all should go to a restaurant and eat some pizza and drink some Mexican beer that I could charge on my credit card. Of the rest of the evening I have mostly an impressionistic collage. Floating in the foreground is a leather-clad singer who reminded me of Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, her tone searing through the fog, like the whine of an outboard. I remember the fo’c’sle of a halibut schooner, tequila, a woman changing her shirt and talking about a horse in Montana, someone crying and some vague talk about a gun.
When I woke up, in my own bed, there was blood on my sleeve. From the feel of my nose, the blood might have been mine. Duarte, my money and my charge card were among the missing. I listened to a message on my answering machine telling me to come to the Pioneer Home to speak to Mrs. Victor. I could tell as she spoke that she was serious. There was a percussive melody in her voice as if she had learned to speak from the raven. She was insistent: I needed to speak to her this morning.
I heard people shuffling out of the dining hall in the home. I shook the crumbs out of my pocket and then jammed the last part of the sandwich back in. There was a woman in peach-colored slacks standing in the middle of the street trying to watch for traffic and take a picture of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral at the same time. This involved a lot of head bobbing and hand waving from her husband on the sidewalk. A raven was the only one sitting on the wall now. A slight breeze off the harbor ruffled his feathers, and as he watched he made noises deep in his throat that sounded like stones dropping into a well.
The tourist lady fussed with her hair and looked nervously up and down the street, even though there were no cars in sight this Sunday morning. She snapped the shot, scurried to her husband, and the raven flew to the curb in front of a bar where he began to eat what looked like the remnants of a pickled egg.
I walked up the steps of the home and in through the double doors. I had left the book by Wendell Berry on the bench outside. No one steals books, and poetry is particularly safe. It would be there when I came out.
When you think of a state-run institution for the aged, you might imagine hollow eyes behind a web of shadows. Emptiness, desperation. In this way the home is a disappointment. To be sure, there are people sitting around, but most of them are waiting to start an argument about fish and game regulations or how the state should spend the oil money to establish craft guilds or senior citizens’ advisory boards. The place is well lit and the halls have thick carpet to avoid the executioner’s sound of nurses’ shoes squeaking on linoleum.
I looked up Mrs. Victor’s room number on the front board in the lobby and I walked down the first-floor hall to room 104. Behind one door there was florid organ music from a TV and a woman’s voice with a Boston accent saying, “I don’t have to stand here and be made a fool of, Gregory!” Then music swells and the commercial break. Then a human voice: “Come on, drink it and I’ll ask the doctor about new medication when he comes by.”
I expected Mrs. Victor’s room to be tomblike. Dark and small, with the smell of medicine and cleaning products. I knocked and heard a faint rustling behind the door. When I opened it I stepped into a searing light. The sun was coming up through her open window and all of her lamps were lit. She sat in the corner, sunk down in her wheelchair, elbows propped out like chicken wings on the armrests. She was smoking a cigarette, and the ticking of the clock in her room was unusually loud as if time had just begun.
“Mrs. Victor? I’m Cecil Younger. Did you want to see me?” I took off my leather windbreaker and draped it over my arm. “Mrs. Victor?” I had to shade my eyes to face her.
The woman in the wheelchair had her head bowed, and the smoke from the cigarette rose up around her face, curling under her wire-framed glasses. I watched it gather, blue and hazy, in the corner of her ceiling. She had raven black hair streaked with white. Her fist resting on the arm of her chair was dark as a walnut. She rocked forward very slowly. “Mr. Younger, I have some questions that no one will help me with. I want to know the truth about something. I need a detective.”
I sat on the bed, the springs creaked slightly, and I felt the fur-bearing animal in my stomach twist suddenly toward my throat.
I don’t really think of myself as a disappointment to my family, but everyone I come into contact with does. They think of my father as “the sainted Judge Younger.” When they have to talk to me the tone of their voices and their bloodhound eyes give them away: failure . . . at least the Judge isn’t alive to see it anymore. He was a man who could give you the whole truth, but as a private investigator the best I can do is try and create the most acceptable version. My sister, who is not a failure, is an idealistic law school professor. She once said to me in the middle of a case, “Don’t confuse the issue with the truth, just develop the facts!” So much for idealism.
Cops are different, they’re right there with sirens screaming and lights flashing, speaking to breathless witnesses who usually don’t have time to think. “Have a seat, ma’am. You’ll feel better if you just tell me the whole truth.” It’s weeks, maybe months, by the time I get to them. Impressions
have changed to suit opinions, and everyone wants to become a judge. If cops collect the oral history of a crime, I gather folklore. And people who have set themselves up to be the judge rarely accept folklore as the whole truth, unless it’s their own story they’re telling.
“Do you need a policeman, Mrs. Victor?”
“I have been to the police. I have been to the district attorney’s. My son has been murdered and I want to know the whole truth.”
I watched the haze of her cigarette smoke clear as a breath of cold wind blew in through the window. I remembered her son, Louis Victor, the Indian big-game guide. The Brown Bear Man, shot with a high-powered rifle by a crazy man. His body had been consumed by the bears near one of his hunting cabins. The facts were long on irony and short on conclusions. Sy Brown was the crazy man’s attorney. I had wanted the case, but by that time I had been fired from the Public Defender Agency and the crazy man couldn’t afford even my violent-crime-of-the-month special of $100 a day.
“Excuse me, Mrs. Victor, but didn’t they convict someone of your son’s murder? Isn’t he already in prison?”
She shook her head slowly. “You don’t understand. Maybe you can’t. The police told me about the man; he’s not right. He talks to himself. He picked up a gun and killed Louis, then left his body for the bears to eat. I know how it happened.” She banged her gnarled fist on the arm of the wheelchair. “I want to know why.”
“Why—? Mrs. Victor, the man was, is, crazy, unbalanced. He probably doesn’t have a reason for killing your son, or at least a reason that you or I can understand. It was a tragic, unforeseeable accident: like an anvil falling out of the sky and killing him.”
“White people!” She shook her head bitterly; her nostrils pushed out a squall of smoke. “Anvils do not fall out of the sky.”
The bug in my inner ear twitched and I felt the tears coming on. I took in a breath and fought them off.
She leaned forward and pointed her finger at me as if it were a revolver. “My mother could talk to animals. She could talk to the raven and the bear. She talked to the killer whale because the killer whales were our ancestors. But I am a Christian now. I go to the cathedral and if I said I talked to animals you would think I was crazy. I don’t talk to animals. I talk to the air and the animals listen.”
Behind her the sun dipped behind a cloud and the shadow filtered into the room. Outside her window was a chain-link fence around a flower bed. I saw the raven with the red thread chuckling above a dormant rhododendron.
“Anvils don’t fall out of the sky like in some silly cartoon. Someone drops them. I want to pay you, Mr. Younger, to find whoever is responsible for my son’s murder.”
I looked at my hands and rocked back. I could use the job. If I took it on, I could dig up all the paper on the case, take a couple of days to read it, talk to some of her friends and family and see what she wanted to believe and then give it to her. That’s the way it usually works, at least if you want to satisfy your client. It would be a four- or five-hundred-dollar job plus a trip to the prison in Juneau where the largest population of my former clients lives.
“I can look into it for you.”
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