Writing in Alaska
“The Son of Rainy Mountain” is a piece I began just after I moved over a thousand miles north from Juneau, Alaska to my home now in Barrow. The contrast between Arctic Alaska and Southeast Alaska struck me deeply: Barrow has the stark beauty of endless tundra and a frozen ocean while Juneau is a place of mountains, green, and constant rain. When I missed Juneau, it felt like missing an entirely different world: trees, wind storms, rain, and the smell of wet earth. Compare that with Mt. Juneau towering over the town, wreathed in patches of fog like the floating island in Gulliver’s travels and you have a pretty surreal image of the place you used to live.
I have always been fascinated with rural Alaska. It is difficult to get around since there are no roads, so the feeling of isolation is a unique experience. Places you have heard about less than 20 miles away take on an almost mystical quality. The waterways in Southeast are speckled with ruins of old camps or strange, unexplained buildings stranded in the wilderness. The town of Rainy Mountain is drawn up from such stories of quiet, forgotten places. Having lived in isolated, rural Alaska for a few years now I have collected all sorts of old stories and histories that seem to carry with them that magic of the “almost forgotten.” In many ways, these are the images from which “The Son of Rainy Mountain,” is drawn, mixed with details borrowed from my former life in Juneau. A friend of mine living in his hammock up on Mt. Juneau used to rub his feet with of lavender oil in order to ward off trench-foot from living outside in the rain, and it was this detail that first inspired the story.
It is difficult for me to know how to talk in depth about my process as a writer and my craft. Whenever I’m asked about my writing I find it suddenly very difficult to express myself. Writing to me is very personal, as I think it is to most writers, and talking about it in intellectual themes often feels to me like I am trying to explain away a magic trick when I do not completely understand the secret.
I have been writing since I was very young, but it wasn’t until I encountered mentors in college that I really developed a true process my work. When I attended the University of Iowa I used to rob the boxes of the graduate students at the Iowa Writers Workshop in order to read their stories. I eventually worked up the nerve to enroll in fiction classes taught by them and a few of their teachers. A few who come to mind are Jeffery Snowbarger, Elinathan Ohiomoba, and Pulitzer-prize winning author James McPherson, who is one of the kindest and most encouraging teachers I have ever had. Though they were all wonderful, my instructor the fall semester of my senior year, Matthew Neill Null, undoubtedly had the most impact on me. His dedication to his class, his craft, and to me as a student came at a time of great need for me in my life and my development as a writer. Without him, my other teachers, and the wonderful friends I have had read my work throughout the years, I don’t know what kind of writer I would be today.
Living in Barrow has proved interesting in for my writing. There is something to be said for isolation, it keeps you desperate and hungry, but in the end that can prove overwhelming. I have few other writers to talk to, no coffee shops to sit in, looking pensive and writerly, and no bars to jot down notes in late at night. I live in a native Inupiaq whaling village that is frozen 10 months out of the year and polar bears are more frequent than poetry readings. It is, at the risk of sounding pretentious, the potential of undiscovered stories that keeps me writing. These communities are fascinating, the landscapes unparallel, and in the same way Juneau and Southeast Alaska inspired “The Son of Rainy Mountain,” I am certain Barrow will inspire its own stories.
Mirri Glasson-Darling lives in Barrow, Alaska: the northern most community in the United States. Prior to living in Alaska, she attended the University of Iowa where she was fortunate enough to have such instructors as Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Allen McPherson. She is an editor for Ilisagvik Tribal College’s debut literary journal, Aglaun and currently working on a novel. Her writing has appeared in such literary journals as Bosque and The Birch. You can follow her on twitter @MirriGD.
The Son of Rainy Mountain
Malcolm stands in the doorway, fiddling with the lights. Five days since Jehovah passed and the nurse brought over her boy, fifteen, to fix the lights. He stands looking up, slender hips cocked in tight jeans, fingers barely touching the bulb as if he means to brush the dust away. The loop of tungsten begins to glow and the bulb turns gold, sitting like a plucked fruit in his hand. He examines the base, reattaches it to the fixture, and steps back to observe his work. Problem solved.
His mother tells me that he’s always been gifted with electricity. She’s been my nurse for twenty years. A lithe woman with violet eyes and a face as open as a child’s. Malcolm has violet eyes too. Rubbing their feet to stave off trench-foot makes them smell of lavender oil. His mother’s name is Malady.
Malcolm’s grandparents meant to name her “Milady” like Milady De Winter from The Three Musketeers, but spelled it wrong on the birth certificate. The name did not come without purpose. A roaming husband left her with no money and a young son to care for, stranded at the abandoned railroad camp up the mountain. I still remember him, a laughing railroad man who wore a canary yellow shirt and fingernails bruised with soot. His laughter came right out of his belly and cleared the air when he bounced his son on his knee. But he left with the rest town. Only twenty-five souls remain. Twenty-four, actually, now that Jehovah’s passed.
Malcolm was born in a blizzard. The fog came down off the mountain and wrapped my house in mist, sinking around my ears as I went about the kitchen, making green tea. The appliances were all stainless steel back then. Brushed nickel handles on the cabinets, their insides smelling of wet paint and cinnamon. The radio buzzed to warn us, but I didn’t pay it any mind.
Now he fixes the lights. Malcolm can start a stove with his hands, rubbing them together hovered over the burners like a man over coals to keep warm. He’s a strange boy who nods his head back and forth, eyelids closed as he listens to his headphones, but he’s also very sweet.
“All done, Miss Ellie,” he says.
He rids this house of shadows, body slinking into the shade like water sinking into wool. A brush of his fingers and the dark is chased away.
As he sits to wait for his mother, Malcolm fidgets with the tablecloth. On his wrist I see a flicker of ink.
“What’s that?” I ask.
His extended arm rests next to mine in the wheelchair.
“Nothing, Miss Ellie.”
“Who gave it to you?”
“Lizzie. The girl that lives on the mountain.”
Lizzie Northrup. I wonder how a fourteen-year-old gets her ink into a boy like Malcolm. The tattoo looks fresh; a pink, swollen line of skin around the image in the muddied shape of a question mark.
“Not finished yet,” he says, embarrassed.
His mother opens the door with a click and comes into the kitchen. She braids her hair like a young girl’s.
“The lights are out at the store, Malcolm,” Malady tells him. “Better run along.”
I watch him disappear.
“Another storm’s brewing,” Malady tells me. “But maybe it won’t catch.”
“Bless you and your son for coming down to take care of me in such weather.”
The weather is always bad. Her smile flickers in a trickle of light.
“We would never leave you, Ellie. The town’s blood might be run out, but we’ll be here until the end.”
Rainy Mountain was a railroad town before the storms came. There aren’t many railroad towns anymore. The coal brought the miners, then the gold, and finally pyrite to turn into sulfur to sell to China. The ruins of the old railroad line still run in the shadow of Emily Glacier.
The people left when the storms came. Blizzards roared down the mountain along with footsore rain and cracks of thunder on a yellow fire sky. Weather on the mountain had always been a problem, but this was different. No work could be done in such mud, such wind, rain, lightening, and snow. The companies stuck it out for two years. Then promises were made, camps abandoned, and no one returned. The population of Rainy Mountain dried up like an old burn. Only the strangest and most-rooted of us stayed. People with no home anywhere else, or no home at all.
Malcolm’s gift came to our attention then. We kept it precious.
When I first saw him fix the lights, Jehovah had taken sick and our electricity went out. Malady found her ten-year-old son and brought him, a thin, reedy thing with wide, purple eyes. Each bulb bloomed in his hand like a tiny star. I had seen him before, but he was a true child then, smelling of earth and rain. Dirt ran through his dark curls and under his nails in moon-shaped veins. His presence in the house was a thing of silence.
We’re not so different now, he and I. I’ve come to believe that age is a paper thing and not in the body, but the place it rests, crumpled old and forgotten. There is no space left here for legend.
“If his father were really a bird,” Malady likes to tell me, “It wouldn’t have surprised me. A golden goose could have done me no better.”
She says it now as she sits on my living room floor, her legs propped up on pillows so she can massage lavender oil into them. The scent forever perfumes the air. The scent of Malcolm.
“His father might come back yet,” I tell her.
“And our lives might slip away too,” she says, “like beaten eggs off a spoon.”
I have no reply. Jehovah and I stayed because we were rooted, but Malady and Malcolm Cotton stayed because they are strange.
Four roads run in Rainy Mountain, named for the cardinal directions. Down East Road is the store run by the Patels, West Lane the library and the Renoirs, and North Way leads up past the Northrups on the mountain. A state trooper, Jeremy Stebbins, comes through town once a week to check on things. Otherwise, we keep to ourselves. A ship comes from Juneau once every three weeks with supplies and mail and the Patels help the owners unload it. Ms. Tooley, the librarian, teaches what cannot be homeschooled, and Raymond Renoir takes care of the phone lines, plumbing, and anything else.
As for the rest of the world: storms will rage, fires will burn, and channels will swirl, but Malcolm Cotton will take care of the lights.
The twenty-four souls in Rainy Mountain can be counted by name: myself, Ms. Tooley, the Cottons (2), the Patels (6), the Renoirs (4), The Chilkatz (2), and the Northrups (8).
The Northrups are strange. Gypsy-bred. You can see it in the black eyes of Lilly Northrup, a fearless kind of wandering. Her husband is Swedish, but who knows if that accounts for the red hair in the twins of her clutch of children. There’s been speculation that in the days of the railroad Lilly took a lover, but there are so few of us here that we’re quick to forgive. The Lord makes no room for loneliness.
It’s the wandering blood in Lilly that makes you nervous. Something about the idea of her being kept put when she doesn’t want to. There’s this feeling of desperation you get on the way up to their house. I went there once, a long time ago, when we were both younger. She was with her first child and invited me for tea. Lilly and I had met once before then, back when she came through as a black-haired waif selling fortunes.
She made me tea and read my cards in green lamplight, snow thick and crusting on the windows.
“What brought you back?” I asked once the pleasantries ran dry.
Lilly shuffled the deck of cards like butterflies, paper wings flapping against each other as she held them caged in her fingers.
“Karl,” she said. Her husband. A simple answer.
She wore a large ring on her first finger, heavily adorned in silver. It seemed to have a tiny clasp on the side.
“Did he give you that ring?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “It was my mother’s. There is a story in my family about it. I will tell you, if you like.” The cards fluttered again. “It is a secret thing, this story. When my grandmother was young, a woman came to her asking for a brew that might help her have a child. With her help the woman conceived, but could not bear the child to term. She came back to the camp, drunk and weeping, and threw herself onto the fire in front of my grandfather. By the time he pulled her from the flames, she was near dead and sealed a curse on him. An evil spirit went into his body. He fell very ill, and my grandmother returned to find him dying. My people believe that the spirit is made of air and can be called by the winds. When the spirit is afflicted by a curse, it is put upon by an evil spirit of bad air, which can only be withdrawn through the lips. It may mean death to the person who withdraws it. My grandmother put her lips to her husband’s chest and sucked out the evil spirit through her teeth. She wore a poison ring, and breathed the spirit into the chamber and shut it tight. When my grandfather recovered, they soldered the ring shut to keep the spirit from escaping.”
Lilly dealt out an arrangement of cards like a cross and sat in silence for a moment. When I looked at the ring on her hand, I saw no solder marks along the clasp or opening.
“A darkness has come over this mountain,” Lilly said. “You must be careful, Ellie. We must all be careful now. It is bad for the spirit to be trapped in one place, unable to follow the wind. An evil has stored itself up in the ground.”
She picked up an elaborately illustrated card, featuring youths with cups turned upside down. “Now, to begin with, you must watch out for water.”
The lights have gone out again. It’s a weekend, so Malcolm comes alone. Malady will drop by in the evening to check on me. She always stays fifteen minutes and offers to make dinner before she leaves.
Her son stands on a chair now, hovering over the kitchen table. On the windows I hear the drip of the rain. It patters, pelts, gushes, and throbs. A smooth wave of consistency.
I treasure these moments we have together. Malcolm touching each bulb in the house, a flick, a tap. His fingers outstretched in the smooth extension of his grip. He stands, strains, crouches, climbs on top of things, steps over them, squats down and looks up with a puzzled expression.
“How old are you, Miss Ellie?” he asks me.
“A lady never tells.”
“Were you here when the storms came?”
“It always stormed. Just not as often.”
I watch his hands as he comes into the living room to work on the lamps. The ink on his wrist is darker, longer, like a hooked finger.
“Are you afraid of the mountain?” Malcolm asks.
“Sometimes,” I say. “Are you?”
“Lizzie’s mother is afraid of it. I don’t know. I love the mountain. I love snow and wind. I love the rain.”
Lizzie Northrup. Lilly’s child.
“Been spending a lot of time with the Northrups, have you?” I ask.
“No,” Malcolm says. “Just Lizzie. I know what you and the other families think of them.”
“I think nothing,” I say. “We get along fine. Don’t hardly see them, is all.”
The last light bulb springs to light. “All done.”
“Thank you, Malcolm. Come see me any time. Bring Lizzie if you like.”
“I don’t think Mom would appreciate that.”
“Let me worry about Malady,” I say. “I’m an old woman and I want to see young people. You think it’s easy for me in my condition to go up that road and visit her family on the mountain?”
“What Malady doesn’t know won’t hurt her.”
“Yes, Miss Ellie.”
He leaves by the backdoor and I’m alone again. The winter nights are getting longer.
It’s snowing when Lizzie Northrup comes to call. She stands in my kitchen with Malcolm, wearing her coat as if she’s afraid I’ll ask her to leave. They’re a quiet pair. Lizzie’s skirts are stacked in layers of burgundy, burnt umber, and tarnished gold. Her overcoat is a wool work-shirt and her fingers are ringed in silver with semi-precious stones.
“How is your mother?” I ask her.
“Good.” Lizzie inclines her head. She is afraid of me. Hers eyes are as dark as Lilly’s, fierce and wandering. “I brought over cards,” she says. “My mother says she used to read your cards. I can read them like she did.”
Aside from the eyes, she looks nothing like her mother. Lilly is not raggedly beautiful, but haughtily so. Her daughter is like a smattering of weed-roses in the brush.
“You may read the cards for me if you like,” I tell her.
Lizzie nods. She is useful. This is what is expected of her family.
I remember when her mother was only two years older than she is now. How she told me to wash in rainwater and drink the drops of the first snow, placing her fingers on my stomach, brows furrowed in frustration. Try as she did, no child came.
“How are your brothers and sisters?” I ask Lizzie.
“Thom is good,” Lizzie says.
Thom is her twin. She says nothing of the four others: Aaron, Elmer, Kenneth, and little six-year old Lindsay. All named by their father. Lilly Northrup has her own names for the children, words in her native language.
“Do you need any lights fixed today, Miss Ellie?” asks Malcolm.
“No,” I shake my head. “I’m just happy to visit with you and your friend. How is your tattoo coming along?”
“Good,” he says.
“When will you finish it?” I ask Lizzie.
“In two weeks. I want to wait for what I did before to heal.” When she speaks, she gestures with her hands. She wears a poison ring on the left one, elaborate in black and silver.
“Isn’t that your mother’s?”
She looks down at it and then at Malcolm for reassurance. I wonder if they will sleep together. If this will be the first woman to lay Malcolm down somewhere in the forest behind her house while her siblings sleep, or maybe out by a lone cedar tree stretching into the sky. The soft gasps of two children joining the unending tide of women choosing men.
Malcolm tugs at her hand from under the table and I see the playful flit of his eyes as Lizzie looks up at him. “We should probably be getting along,” he says to me. “Just wanted to stop by and say hi is all.”
“Of course,” I say. “See you soon.”
The wind howls as the door slams shut. I move my wheelchair to the window to watch them go.
The snow has turned back into rain.
Malady folds the towels into fourths as she stacks them on the kitchen table. They smell of fresh aloe and soap. Leaves smolder in the front yard, too wet to burn. Burning leaves used to make me think of my childhood, but not anymore. On our honeymoon down south, Jehovah and I went for a walk and came upon the ruins of a bus crash with the engine still smoking and sidewalk laced with snowflakes of blood. The smell was exactly the same as burning leaves.
“I had a dream last night,” Malady tells me, still stacking towels.
“Water,” she says. “It came in through the ceiling, welling up in the cracks like a mold stain, but it didn’t drip. Instead, it slid down the walls like a slimy thing. It crept along the floor and layered on top of itself. A boxed up, rushing river.”
“And we drowned?”
“Yes. All of us. The whole town. You, me, and Malcolm.”
“Did it hurt?”
“No, it felt like falling. Like diving off a tree into a pool. Like lying back into a warm bed and sinking through the bottom of the mattress. Looking up at your reflection on the other side of the water, reaching your fingers up to touch your face and finding nothing but cool, wet air. Then harsh dryness. Parched almost. Death was a dry, quiet place.”
I shut my eyes, letting the tea heat my lips as the steam breathes. “Rainwater or saltwater?”
“Rainwater, of course.”
I finish my tea. Malady takes the towels to the closet and I watch the birds playing in the rain outside my window. It is cold. Lightning strikes and the lamps flicker. Our birds no longer hide from the storms. They have learned to be thrill seekers, awed by the chaotic silence of electric lights.
Mirri Glasson-Darling lives in Barrow, Alaska: the northern most community in the United States. She attended the University of Iowa where she was fortunate enough to have such instructors as Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Allen McPherson. She is an editor for Ilisagvik Tribal College’s debut literary journal, Aglaun, and currently working on a novel. Her writing has appeared in such literary journals as Bosque and The Birch.