LETTER TO A STRANGER: SITKA, ALASKA
BY CAROLINE LESTER
Do you remember that morning, when the harbor seemed like glass, and even the wake from passing boats felt like gentle rocking? We’d walked the kayak down to the docks on our shoulders, and though my back ached by the time we put the boat in the water, the paddle to The Causeways was quick.
Breakwaters connect the islands out there—boulders crusted with barnacles, kelp, and the occasional buoy line twined between the rocks. I asked how they came to be. You said you didn’t know, and I imagined calcified bones of leviathans, who, tired from their years of ghosting about the high seas, finally lay supine and became a part of the landscape. I scrambled over them, fingering the patterns, picturing scales and twisted, tired spines.
We walked down a path framed by salmon berries and devil’s club, past patches of wide, flat mushrooms. Sound sunk into the trunks around us, and we yelled just to hear it fade.
You told me that the military abandoned the islands by ’47, after it became clear that Japan was never going to invade Alaska, or at least the Southeast. (I joked that today, their worst nightmare had come true. You looked confused. Later, I found out that you thought I was Native. That when we met the night before, you had invited me kayaking expecting knowledge and maybe something more, and when I gave you neither you didn’t know what to do with me.)
The first one we found looked like a door carved into the side of a hill. It hung ajar, like something had pried it open and given up halfway through. The metal was rusted, and its dust came away with my fingers. You stood in the archway, blocking my view so I had to come up behind to peer around your shoulders. I jumped when my chin brushed your back. I was surprised that I could feel you, that you were warm.
When the military left, they took their lights with them. You brought a headlamp, and we walked through echoing underground caverns, with ceilings that curved in and tunnels that all looked the same. I held your arm, trying not to think about ghosts.
I told you that the darkness felt thick on my shoulders. You said it felt like water, deep enough to drown in.
Later, days later, when I mention I’m leaving, you ask me to stay. This place could have been yours, you say. You don’t belong here, anyway, you say. Rain lands soft on the roof of the car, and I watch as the water slips down the windshield in sheets. This place was never yours, you say.
* * *
I drive the winding road up the hill. I think of another boy I knew up north, far above the Arctic Circle, where mountains meet the tundra like the ocean at home, with tussocks like waves breaking on our feet.
I go up for the week with friends, to visit a hometown and hike between the Chukchi Sea and the Bairds. We travel a thousand miles—two jets, a cub, and a handsome bush pilot who flies with a gun on his hip.
One afternoon (or morning, or night, because time is fluid when the sun never sets) we see clouds of mosquitoes, rising from the earth in solid columns. We pause to stare, and I wonder at how evenly spaced they are. Later, we light pallets on the beach and cheer as the fire blows high.
The bonfire makes the boy’s eyes water, and he laughs when I stand in the smoke. She’s tough, he tells his friends. And I stand up a little straighter, because I love to be told I’m tough, even though I think that might mean I’m not tough at all. I love to be told by this boy who is older than me, who stares at my collarbone and tells me he’ll teach me to skin a caribou. He can feel me lusting after that knowledge, knows he has me hooked. Come up to my cabin, he whispers. Come upriver. When, I ask. I can’t, I say. The wind is cool and strong and blows from behind him.
* * *
A year is a long time, I say to the rain on my window. A year is no time, you reply. Place is just a backdrop, I say. Land is everything, you say. It’s your bones it’s your soul it’s your life, and when you die it’s your death because that’s where you stay. I think maybe you’ve got it wrong, that this state cares nothing for me or for you or for us, that we could stay or leave and it would make no difference to the mountains or the tundra or the fish.
After you leave, I park outside my house and turn off all my lights. Water drips from everything, and I realize I’m crying and I don’t know why.
* * *
Yesterday, I had dinner with my neighbor. She’s from the East Coast, too, and now she’s lived out here longer than both of us. We talk fish, and when I keep up with her jargon I feel proud. I listen to the hum of her dishwasher and almost miss what she says next. Her tone doesn’t change—low and quiet and dull—when she says she’s not even sure what happened to her that night. Her smile sticks at the corner of her mouth while she tells me. Her husband and daughter play on the floor by the couch. I don’t know if they can hear us.
It’s like a bad movie, she laughs. Roofied on the docks. People won’t tell you things here, she says. But now you know. You know what I didn’t know. She tells me that she left, then came back. Even after that. It’s this place, she murmurs. It sinks into you and doesn’t let you go. I thought of you and wondered what you’d say.
Later, when I’m lying in my borrowed bed, I’ll look out my window and see her, standing on her porch, staring at the rain. She stays there until I fall asleep.
* * *
I live in a house at the top of a hill. My roommate is eighty-eight. I sleep in the room where his wife died. I try not to think about her when I lie in my bed, her bed. When I first moved here, I dreamt about my dead dog every night. You tell me that when you tried to move away, you dreamt of whales. I wonder if I’ll do the same when I leave.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Caroline Lester is an audio producer and freelance writer based in Boston. Her favorite place is a floating house on the muddy Mekong.