Whenever a bunch of fellows would get together, someone would start talking about going up north .?.?. Things were pretty much settled to the south of us. We didn’t seem to be ready for steady jobs. It was only natural we’d start talking about the north. We bought out the Russians. We’d built canneries up there. The fellows who hadn’t been up was hankering to go. The rest of us was hankering to go back.
— Martha McKeown, The Trail Led North
There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You find in this way the path of your life.
— Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table
The captain’s voice echoed off the mountainside. “Port Anna. The town of Port Anna, twenty minutes. All passengers exit through the car deck.”
She watched off the left rail of the ferry — port, starboard, whatever. Bleached driftwood and tangles of seaweed were strewn across the beach. Above the sand, trees carpeted the mountains up to the craggy peaks.
She squinted, but couldn’t make out much in the thickening fog, just clouds caught in hazy wisps among the treetops. Shouldn’t there be factories on the outskirts of town? Suburbs? The air smelled piney, faintly citrus.
She punched her sleeping bag into its sack, tossing salami ends and scraps from her meals during the last four days into the trash. With her thumbnail she chipped duct tape from the cement deck where she had camped. The bottom of the tent was still wet from the first night on the boat, when she had woken to the crack of the rainfly, shiver of the ferry as waves slammed into the hull. Huddled in her sleeping bag, nylon walls contracting and expanding around her like a lung, she had been certain the duct tape lashing down her tent would give. She’d be trapped in a sail, skittering across the ocean, never to be seen again.
When she finally gathered the courage to step out, as the sky began to lighten, a wave streaked with foam reared up in front of her like some nightmarish opponent, before slapping down, sending salt spray over her cheeks. She spent the next three nights sleeping on a chair beneath the solarium heat lamps, reveling in the warmth.
The ferry heaved toward a break in the trees, threading two islands, crescent sweeps of ash-colored beach on either side, faint outlines of mountains beyond. The ocean so calm, the light dimming. Since boarding the ferry she had spoken to no one, feeling like a ghost among the passengers. That’s how it had been since she left Philly, as if her vital organs continued to function while her mind traveled elsewhere, into some alternate universe, the laws of which she could not explain. Moving farther and farther from her body.
She zipped her duffel and returned to her spot. A tall man with a white beard and a weathered face, eyes the color of Pennsylvania bluestone, settled beside her.
“The Rock home for you?” he asked, gripping the railing. h-a-r-d-w-o-r-k was tattooed over scabbed, swollen knuckles. She caught a whiff of oil, and something else, maybe alcohol.
“You mean Archangel Island?”
“The Rock, that’s what we call it. A fifty-mile-long, fifteen-mile-wide slab of rock. You’re lookin’ at the northern tip of it right now, with Port Anna just around the bend.”
“I’m from Philly,” she announced. Her throat felt sandpapery after so long without speaking.
“Yeah, I woulda noticed if you’d been around.” He stepped back from the railing, stretching his sinewy arms. “Philadelphia. Capital of America. I got that right?”
The wrinkles etched into his cheeks didn’t deepen. She couldn’t tell if he was joking.
He set a palm into the rain, breaking into a jagged smile. “Liquid sunshine. Welcome home, friend. That’s what we say to folks from the lower forty-eight when it looks like they might stick around.”
“I guess I’ll see you,” she said, shouldering her duffel.
“For sure. Petree Bangheart.” He set out a hand.
“Tara,” she said, shaking it.
As she moved toward the car deck she thought how nice it was that someone might think this island could become her home, instead of the brick and mortar houses built above the crumbling Wissahickon schist curbs of South Philadelphia. Her mother had always spoken about the magic of living by the sea, her memories of sleeping on a boat open to the stars, cradled by the waves. “Let the hands of Saint Anthony carry you.” And now Tara was doing it, signed up to work in a fishing village. This year would be a fist to knock her open, a right cross to shake loose the grime and sadness.
From the protected lower level of the ferry she watched as a broad wooden dock resolved through the mist. Workers tossed ropes as the boat drifted, easing them up to the moorings. Cars were lined up beside a low-slung building in the middle of a parking lot, clouds of exhaust rising from the tailpipes.
She patted her coat, wet with rain. In the pocket was just under two thousand dollars, most of it tip money after a summer scooping water ice at John’s, bills still sticky from the cherry and lemon syrup. (She never earned a dime working at the family bakery. A roof and food was pay enough, her father reasoned. Cheap bastard.)
She scanned the coast. She had envisioned Alaska lush and open, wide-skied and dramatic. This world of narrow passageways and forests that seemed to swallow the light felt like some different planet. Where was the spire of the Russian church Acuzio had described? The volcano looming over town? Cabins with smoke curling out of the chimney?
Inside a ferry attendant unhooked a chain, and passengers filed downstairs to the car deck. The steel ramp leading up from the boat jolted as vehicles drove off. She joined a few pedestrians crossing the parking lot to the terminal, where people waited in dulled raingear. One girl, overweight, with small glasses, wearing a pink waterlogged fleece, wet hair plastered to her cheeks, stared vacantly ahead. No one spoke. Her new boss had told her when she called him from a payphone in Ketchikan that he’d meet her here. “Just one boat a week,” he had said in a gruff voice.
Afraid that he might have forgotten, she started toward the terminal. She thought of a game Connor loved to play, insisting that she choose one word to describe her state of mind. (Her feelings changed with the weather, while his were so annoyingly consistent.) With this army surplus duffel packed with the damp tent and sleeping bag, and her ponytail pulled through her Eagles cap, she’d chosen “homeless.” But homeless with a plan.
As she opened the glass door of the terminal a potbellied man dressed in stained work jeans held up by faded rainbow suspenders elbowed his way out. His brown boots, extending from the frayed cuffs of his pants, appeared clownish. She was about to say that God gave him arms so he could open doors by his own goddamn self when he held out a meaty palm.