by Shannon Fandler
My teacher told me that our state flag, the fabric representation of The Last Frontier, was designed in a contest among public school children. Looking at the seven or eight stars that made up the Big Dipper stitched on a swatch of navy blue, I figured it to be a pretty good likeness. This was after eight winters of walking to class under a clear, midnight sky and trudging home into the same darkness, the constellations and plane headlights providing a source of illumination far inferior to that of the hibernating sun. Winters in Alaska lasted for a very long time.
Once, coming into the gas-lit house with my canvas sack of schoolbooks pressing into one shoulder, I found my mother crying in the kitchen. Her forehead was up against the steaming window and moist tears were cutting through the frosted pane in slippery lines, like silver strings hung from her glassed eyes. I tried to call out at her in concern, but my jaw wouldn’t move from the cold. This, yet my clothes were pricking and sliding from the sweat of the heated room, my face rubbed hotly raw from airborne drifts of ice crystals pelting my scratchy scarf.
“It’s nothing at all,” explained Mom, seeming surprised at herself. “I really can’t think what’s wrong.”
Then Dad came in from the docks, his face swathed beyond identification, and began to scrape futilely at the buttons of his coat, gloved hands frozen into numb contortions. “It’s a bitter day,” he said as soon as he could speak. “20 below and still dropping.” He looked at Mom’s eyes, rimmed in blotches and spilling saltiness, and seemed to know. He asked, “the old thing?”
Mom snorted a little. “Lifeless,” she said. “Everything’s dark and dead. I’ve been looking out the window all afternoon, at nothing but near-blackness and snow that lasts forever. Even the trees are stuck in permafrost.”
“Oh,” said Dad. He smiled. “The old thing.”
I had begun to ease off the thick boots that seized my cold ankles with a persistent sort of suction.
“Better not do that,” Dad ordered. “There’s something you should see, and it will help.”
“Help what?” asked Mom, dully. But she started into her fleece coat, then her weighty down one. She pulled two knit hats over her rough hair and wedged her chapped hands into shapeless gloves. She wasn’t too old, but cold is the worst catalyst of aging, a sloppy sculptor that etches the skin into sagging designs like folds of ashen clay.
“Hurry,” said Dad, “or they’ll be gone when we get there.”
“Where are we going?” I hounded.
“To the graveyard of the fisheries,” was all he would answer, holding the door for Mom like a gentleman although the heavy garments and weather-tanned skin allowed little difference between the two. He began to walk quickly then, snapping through the hard-glazed snow and catching the brunt of the wind right in the hunched shoulders and low-slung head.
It was a clear afternoon, the trees standing sharply black, like dark, stiffened lace. All the windows were lit and glowing out across the snow in little puddles of gold, and someone’s heavily furred outdoor huskies were singing their love of cold with an earthen, bestial passion.
“No life?” laughed Dad, shading his eyes to view an ascending bush plane riding on its blurred propeller. I thought that maybe this was his point, the huskies and the lit-up town, but he probed forward, toward the frosted docks and sprawling fish warehouses. A few minutes later, though the chill blown up from the sea was usually enough to smother my sense of smell in its entirety, I was able to inhale the briny, seaweed scent of a thousand rotting fish skeletons.
Mom, appearing skeptical, unraveled her muffler a bit so she could speak, but Dad made emphatic shushing motions, waving his hands energetically. I bit my lip, not feeling anything. “No quick movements,” whispered Dad, a second before disappearing behind the shadows of a fishy dumpster. Mom followed, then me. Peering out at the wasteland of fishery by-products, trying not to be seen, my breath caught in my mouth and held a minute.
“Bald eagles,” Dad breathed, but he didn’t need to say so. There they were, five of them, needled talons prying into heaps of gummy bones and scales. Their bills were hanging with the stuff, but they were beautiful anyway, bright eyes never softening and paper-white heads unmoving. They seemed to know we were there, but their reptilian feet kept stepping and grasping, toes flexing powerfully and chocolate wings pinned firmly to say that they weren’t leaving in any kind of hurry.
Each spiny feather shaft was raised slightly for warmth, giving each bird a puffed, almost cuddly body. Yet, I knew that those great claws could tear like biting steak knives, drawing fragrant blood with barely a whisper scratch. I knew those broad wings could spread to a length longer than my father was tall, forcing each bird into the silken sky minutes faster than any bush plane could alight. Yes, if my father was looking for signs of life in this frozen, little fishing town, he’d certainly found the epitome.
I searched quickly for Mom’s eyes. They were stretched all the way open at the seams, radiating eager amazement and catching flecks of amber from a far-away star. And for a moment, none of us shrunk back from the cold or smothered in the darkness. We were as much a part of the winter as the huskies and the bush planes and the Big Dipper sprinkled across its navy blanket, though maybe not so much as the five wild birds, their breath clouding, snowy, from invisible nostrils.