April 1, 1943
When John Easley opens his eyes to the midday sky his life does not pass before him. He sees instead a seamless sheet of sky gone gray from far too many washings. He blinks twice, then focuses on the tiny black specks drifting across the clouds. They pass through his field of vision wherever he turns to look. Last winter, the doctor pronounced them floaters. Said that by Easley’s age, thirty-eight, plenty of people had them. Little bits of the eyeball’s interior lining had come free and were swimming inside the jelly. What Easley actually sees are not the specks themselves, but the shadows they cast as they pass over his retina. To avoid their distraction, the doctor advised him to refrain from staring at a blank page, the sky, or snow. These are his first conscious thoughts on the island of Attu.
He sits up straight. When he does, it feels as if his head has a momentum all its own, as if it wants to continue its upward trajectory. A dull pain jabs his ribs. He places bare hands in the snow to keep from keeling over. The parachute luffs out behind him—a jaundiced violation against the otherwise perfect white. Fog so thick he can’t see the end of the silk. For a moment, he is anxious it might catch a breeze and drag him farther upslope.
Planes whine and circle overhead, unseen.
Easley flexes his hands. The gloves were ripped away by the velocity of the fall. He gazes down his long legs and moves his boots from side to side. He slides the flight cap from his head, runs fingers through his hair, checks for signs of blood. Finding none, he unclips the harness, rolls over on his stomach, pushes himself up. He is, unaccountably, alive and whole. And so it begins.
The fog is better than an ally; it is a close, personal friend. It covers his mistakes and spreads its protective wing over him, allowing him to escape detection. But it also separates him from the crew, if indeed anyone else has survived. Then a red flash of memory: an airman’s lapel suddenly blooms like a boutonnière before the man’s head slumps forward and lolls.
Not far downslope, the snow gives way to an empty field that spreads off into the mist. Yardlong blades of last year’s ryegrass are brown, laid flat from the full weight of winter. Easley returns to the parachute, gathers it up, hastily shoves it back into its pack. It does not go willingly. He hoists the pack onto his shoulders, winces at the pain in his side, then stands defiantly erect, wondering what to do.
The occasional report of Japanese antiaircraft fire begins to define space. Between distant bursts—five, ten miles?—is the nearby cascade of breakers. But like staring into deep water, the fog misdirects, distorts. Within the hundred-yard range of visibility, there is no cover. He is fully, completely exposed. He unshoulders the pack and uses it as a seat.
He stares at the backs of his hands, which have gone pink with the cold. Lately they have been putting him in mind of his father. They are no longer the hands of a young man, clear and smooth. Suddenly it seems as if every pore and vein reveal themselves. A topography of thin lines and faded scars.
John Easley was all of seven years old when he let go of his brother’s sticky hand in London’s Victoria Station. They had arrived from Vancouver, by way of Montreal, only the day before, destined to spend the next eight months in a tiny flat as their father advanced his engineering credentials. John would have responsibilities. For the moment, however, while their mother was off searching for a job and their father stood in line for tickets to the Underground, John’s only task was to remain on the bench and watch over three-year-old Warren. But those magnificent trains easing into and out of the station drew him like a spell. He is sure he had his brother’s hand when he first wandered down the concourse, just as he knows that he was the one who let go.
The guilt came on like a fever. After all these years he can feel it still. He turned round, but the benches, the platforms all looked the same. There were numerous toddlers from which to choose, each firmly attached to other families. What started as a trot turned into a sprint, out of the station and into the conviction that it was already too late. Adrenaline gave way nausea, then dizziness overtook him.
He awoke to a ring of female faces and the vague idea that he had risen from the dead. But his father soon appeared, cradling his brother Warren, his face twisted and pale. He thanked the women and grabbed John by the upper arm. Once a discreet distance away from the scene, he set Warren down on the pavement, then turned to his eldest son. “How could you leave your brother? Where on earth did you think you were going?” Then, for the first and only time, Easley watched his father break down. Unwilling to let anyone see him cry, he reached up with both big hands and covered his face in shame.
Antiaircraft fire grows sporadic then stops altogether. The wind begins to stir. Easley rises and stares into the mist. He makes his way downhill two hundred yards, off the last patch of snow and onto flattened rye. The terrain, soft and spongy underfoot, slopes toward the beach. Not a single tree presents itself, no bush of any description.
A small stream bisects his path. Less than a yard across, it snakes through the weathered grass. Easley lies down on his stomach with his head above the water. He puts his lips to the cold little stream and drinks so deep his head begins to ache. When the pain subsides, he drinks again as if he hasn’t seen water in days.
He pushes himself up and notices a glimmer in the current, a suggestion of reflected sun. A gust blows the furlined collar of the flight suit against his cheek, then lays it down again. The far-off scream of an arctic tern is followed, strangely, by what sounds like a cough. Easley spins around. He now has perhaps a hundred feet of visibility and that is improving rapidly. The farther he sees, the more he realizes how completely exposed he is. No stump or boulder to duck behind, no ditch to conceal him. His heart trips a beat. Easley strains to hear the cough again but detects only the breaking of waves. He stands with thumbs hooked in the straps of his harness, at a loss for what to do.
And then he turns to see a rift open up in the fog. Like endless curtains parting, the rift widens and moves his way, brightening the land, warming the air on approach. Finally, the sheet splits open and the sun spills down directly overhead. It is such a miraculous thing that he forgets, for a moment, that he is behind enemy lines.
The opening extends down the slope and onto the beach. He can make out the waves’ pealing white under pale blue sky. As the opening expands and liberates more and more terrain, Easley hears the faint cough again and stares through the vapor for its source. Unarmed, he can only watch as a form takes shape near the edge of the beach. Japanese? A member of the crew? It is clear that the man has seen him. Easley doesn’t know whether to raise his hands or run.
The fog slips like satin from the slopes of a dormant volcano, revealing a frigid beauty. All is laid bare in the bold relief of the rare Aleutian sun—patches of white, tan husk of last year’s grass, blood blue North Pacific. When Easley recognizes the lone figure, he stifles the urge to shout for joy. He unhooks his thumb from the harness, raises his hand, and waves.
A fresh bust of anti-aircraft fire and they both buckle at the knees.
Then, just as swiftly as it began, the fog stalls its retreat. Like a wave racing down a beach to the sea, it hesitates, reverses course, then comes flooding back again. They walk toward each other in the gathering mist, the preceding color and light now seeming like a dream. They approach each other with widening grins, like they’re the only ones in on the joke. And when they meet, they hug long and hard, like men who had cheated death together—like men convinced the worst is behind them.
The boy, Karibitburg, is spent. Easley realizes he is soaked to the skin as soon as they embrace. The boy stands smiling, shivering. Easley guesses him to be no more than nineteen years of age and finds himself doubting he’ll ever see twenty.
“Find anyone else?” The boy speaks in a lonesome drawl.
“No. You come down in the water?”
“About thirty yards from shore. Got out, as quick as I could, and hauled in the silk. Hid it under a rock over there.” The boy nods down the beach. “Don’t think any Japs ever saw. They’re clear on the far side of the ridge.”
It was only luck, Easley says, that he himself landed on shore. The fog was so thick he only saw what was coming seconds before his feet hit the ground. He saw no other parachutes and completely lost track of the plane. As Easley tells his tale, he observes the boy shake and considers—for the very first time—the true power of the cold and wet arrayed against them. The boy’s face is bloodless and pale, his stature weighed down. He looks nothing like the cocky, pumped up kid Easley met two days before.
“We should search for the others,” the boy announces. “We need to dry you off.”
“We find my goddamn friends. That’s what we do.” The boy stands a little taller, sticks out his chin. “I know those guys. I live with those guys. You’re just along for the ride.”
“We don’t get you dried off and stop your shivering, you’ll be dead by morning.”
Seeing the boy pulls Easley out of the daze he’s been wandering in, presenting a point of focus. It also gives him his first real notion of a future since touching down on the patch of snow.
“Airman first class,” the boy says, declaring his rank. “You’re not even supposed to be here. I’m responsible ’til we find the lieutenant.”
“Suit yourself,” Easley says. “But now that the fog’s back we might want to make a fire, dry you off. Have somewhere to bring your friends—if there’s anyone left to find.” He can see that the boy wants to listen to reason. “Could be Japs on the lookout. We should find some kind of cover.”
“They might smell the smoke.”
“You get hypothermia out here, you’re finished.”
The boy puts his hands on his hips and looks into the fog. “My lighter’s soaked.”
Easley reaches into his pocket and finds his own shiny Zippo. He pulls it out, flips it open, snaps a sharp orange flame.
Driftwood is in short supply, dry wood is but a dream. Easley well knows not a single tree grows in the entire Aleutian Chain, the only wood available being tattered logs and branches pushed in from distant shores. The best pieces are found where beach gives way to sedge and rye, where rogue waves have reached up and pulled the earth out from under the tangle of roots. Beneath the resulting ledges, a few sticks and logs collect. This wood and withered grass provide kindling enough for a fire.
They locate a ravine just up from the high tide line. Soon the light will fail. The boy stands across the fire from Easley, stripped to the waist, holding his heavy shearling jacket over the flames.
The boy’s body is pale and wiry. He is of average height, somewhat shorter than Easley. Although he has the frame of an athlete, Easley reckons it won’t do him much good out here. The complete absence of fat is not encouraging. A new tattoo is etched on his shoulder: the anchor and eagle of the U.S. Navy. The mark of a warrior. It strikes Easley as ridiculous on the pale, helpless skin. It makes the boy look even younger. The soaked flight suit, his only real protection, will probably never dry.
Easley watches him shudder near the flames, then walks over beside him. He takes off his own flight jacket and puts it around his shoulders. The boy wraps himself in the warmth and nods with gratitude. Then Easley steps out of his leather flight pants and hands them over. This leaves Easley with cotton trousers, shirt, and jacket.
The boy slips off the rest of his wet clothes and pulls on Easley’s pants. Then, with trembling arms, he holds his wet drawers out over the fire. “I usually don’t get to flash the family jewels on the first date,” he says, “although I always give it a try.”
The ravine is less than ten feet deep, but it is enough to conceal the campfire light except, perhaps, from the mountains a few miles away, or directly out at sea. Things could be worse. They remain uninjured, the enemy seems unaware of their presence, and the boy is livening up by the minute. They will make it through the night.
When darkness falls, the fog clears and the stars shine defiantly.
The mountains loom purple-black and the phosphorus ribbon of surf provides the only demarcation between darkened land and sea.
Easley feels the descending realization that they are only marking time. Six planes left on the bombing run. The Navy knows only which did not return. Perhaps one of the other gunners saw his plane crash into the frigid sea. He is convinced they will no longer be looking for them—not looking for him in particular. They are presumed drowned or captured. Each man who makes this run knows there is no hope of rescue. Back on the island of Adak, the boy’s comrades will count him and his crew as missing in action and lift a glass to their memory tonight. In a few weeks’ time, his parents will be handed a vague letter buttered in platitudes. Their son went beyond the call, fought with distinction.
Easley’s wife will receive no such correspondence. Helen will know by now that he has returned to Alaska, but even she won’t have imagined he’s made it all the way back to the Aleutians. Easley summons her elegant hands, her crooked smile, the soft hair at the back of her neck, but is left holding the guilt of having left her behind. He imagines her before the war, before everything changed, sitting by the roaring fire in her father’s house, bathed in warmth and light.
Easley awakes to an aching rib. The boy is wedged against him, asleep in the parachute. The shelf of roots remains overhead, the sea did not invade. When the fire died down last night, they covered the coals, then sought shelter where they found wood at the high tide line. There was barely enough room for the two of them. Ignoring the protocol of keeping watch, they pulled out Easley’s silk, wrapped themselves up, and quickly fell asleep.
Easley turns his head and peers out into the blinding white. A pair of boots can been seen about a dozen yards away in the new accumulation of snow. A moment later, a thin yellow stream. Easley holds his breath. When the soldier finishes, he tramps across the beach and stares out to sea. He is soon joined by four more shuffling soldiers, all shooting glances back over the hills and peaks. They overlook the narrow hiding place. A mere two inches of snow has covered all previous tracks and indiscretions. The Japanese appear weary and bored. They don’t see a thing.
Easley reaches over, clamps his hand over the boy’s mouth and cheeks. The boy comes to with a start, meets Easley’s eyes, then slowly turns to look as the men light cigarettes, shift rifle slings from one shoulder to the other. When they disappear from view, Easley sighs and lies back down again.
“Damn.” The boy rubs his eyes. “Looks like you’re gettin’ more of a story than you bargained for.”
Story. The word strikes like an insult. Once the plane was aloft, the pilot announced that in fact they had themselves a newspaper man onboard. War correspondent, no less. It was high time the world started paying attention.
They lie silent, listening, watching as the day gains strength and the snow melts off the lip of their lair.
Easley’s first trip to the Territory of Alaska was nearly a year ago, on assignment for the National Geographic Magazine. He had traveled to the island of Atka, halfway across the eleven-hundred-mile chain, and stayed two weeks in spring, hiking the lush green hills of a place that, from the air at least, reminded him of Hawaii’s Molokai. Before this assignment, he was only vaguely aware of these islands’ existence. He interviewed shy but welcoming villagers and was invited to go fishing with them. He attended their Orthodox church, breathed in the incense and pageantry. He became fascinated by both the island’s natural and human history—the native and Russian braids of the people and their culture. He had happened upon a world little known and far removed.
But on June 3, 1942, just three days before Easley was scheduled to head for home, the Japanese launched a strike from light carriers and bombed Dutch Harbor Naval Base and Fort Mears Army Base, killing forty-three men, incinerating ships and buildings. These out posts on Unalaska and Amaknak islands, near the Alaskan main land, were the only U.S. defenses in the Aleutian Archipelago. June 7 saw the U.S. victory at Midway. That same day, six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Americans learned that the Japanese Army had seized the islands of Kiska and Attu at the far end of the Aleutian Chain. Eleven days later, the U.S. Navy made a brief statement to the press downplaying events. Easley’s original assignment, a natural history article, was quickly set aside. When he finally arrived at Dutch Harbor, the place was still smoldering.
One of a half-dozen journalists working in this new theater of war, Easley dutifully took official dispatches and fed them to eager newspaper editors back home. But then he started interviewing air men freshly returned from reconnaissance runs. He made notes on what they saw, rumors of how the Japanese were digging in. He care fully edited his own copy, excising anything he believed could com promise the troops, and yet the military censor drew thick black lines through most of the facts. He was left with copy that read:
enemy encampments at reinforced under the cover of fog. ships of the Japanese Imperial Navy were spotted in the and attempting re-supply. While planes and men have been lost to the aggressor, the biggest threats to our troops so far are the wind, wet and cold.
Soon the entire press corps was ordered out of Alaska—even though congressmen were now screaming for news from this far-off stretch of American soil, news other than that broadcast by Tokyo Rose. But news from the Aleutians was now under the intense scrutiny of the War Department, a matter of national security. As the flow of Alaskan information reduced to a trickle, American involvement in North Africa and Guadalcanal served to divert attention. And public information offices were still loudly trumpeting the victory at Midway.
Someone wants this battle fought beyond the view of prying eyes. What were they hiding in the Aleutians? If the Japanese were securing a base for attacks on the mainland, civilians in Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington State had a right to know and prepare. Easley was one of a handful of journalists with any knowledge of this corner of the world. What kind of writer shrinks from such a duty?
A few months later, against the warnings of his editors, friends, and Helen, Easley snuck back in with another journalist as a deck hand with the merchant marine. They never made it to the Aleutians, spending a week on Kodiak Island asking questions before the brass got wind. They were shipped south after a long interrogation and a warning that they could find themselves imprisoned under provisions of the Espionage Act. Next time, Easley would travel alone and hide in plain sight. He flew back in a third time, wearing the uniform of a full lieutenant of the Royal Canadian Air Force—the uniform that had belonged to his brother. He forged documents requesting observer status for future joint operations in the Aleutian Theater. He was meticulous, well rehearsed. He fell into the role with ease.
Easley soon patched together the basic facts as far as the Navy knew them. Upward of two thousand enemy troops are dug in around the tiny village on Attu. Judging by the barracks, vehicles, and roads the Japanese built on the neighboring island of Kiska, there could be as many as ten thousand garrisoned there. The idea that these remote islands could be the breach through which the war floods into North America is something the Navy doesn’t want civilians thinking about. They’re gambling that this problem can be contained. The plan is to soften up the enemy in advance of an amphibious assault. Regular bombardment of their flak batteries, seaplane hangars, submarine pens, and runways keeps the Japanese busy patching holes. Weather permitting, sorties are dispatched up to six times a day from Adak, the forward base of operation against the enemy positions.
On Adak, he met the pilot of an aircrew who agreed to take him along once Easley explained that no one back home knew what he and his men were facing. Lieutenant Sanchez was a sharp and confident man, about Easley’s own age, with a quick and infectious grin. He said the idea that the newspapers were not reporting his war was like a swift kick in the sack. Two days later, Easley was tossed out the hatch of his Catalina flying boat as it sank from the turbulent sky.
Easley crawls out from under the ledge and takes a good long look around. He staggers to his feet, stretches his back, touches tender ribs. The boy joins him, and together they study the Japanese boot tracks in the snow, marveling at the odds of having gone undiscovered.
But the covering snow also mocks Easley’s focus on the immediate need to find food, shelter, a secure hiding place. He is confronted by the Big Picture, the fact that—unlike that enemy patrol—the wet and cold cannot be escaped.
For the moment, at least, they have the sun. The glare forces them to squint. To boost morale, Easley declares that, at the current rate of melt, much of the new snow will be gone by dusk.
The boy demonstrates the proper way to repack a parachute. Easley observes the practiced movements, the muscle memory, and the fact that this gives him some illusion of control. When the task is done, they stand with hands on hips, staring at the tight bundle.
“Let’s see what else we got.” The boy empties his pockets atop the canvas. He produces a pocketknife, the drowned lighter, a key, a stick of chewing gum, and four crushed cigarettes.
“What’s the key for?”
“Front door back home.”
Easley reaches into his own pockets and produces only his Zippo and a buffalo nickel. He then tries each of his pockets again but is unable to add to their provisions. The boy holds up the nickel between thumb and forefinger.
“Old girlfriend gave it to me for luck,” Easley says, saving the part about the girlfriend becoming the wife.
“So. You get lucky?”
The rush of adrenaline takes Easley by surprise. He considers the boy for a moment: eyes alight with the attempt at levity. Recognizing this prevents Easley from hitting him.
“Didn’t think so.” The boy tears the gum in half, pops a piece into his mouth, then offers the other half to Easley. “You don’t look like the lucky type to me.”
“Here—” He flips the nickel back to Easley. “You can buy me a drink when we get off this frozen pile of shit.”
At the boy’s insistence, they spend the balance of the day in search of other members of the crew. Stinging nose and cheeks, throbbing fingers and toes. They arrive back at their ravine famished, dispirited, and—as far as Easley’s concerned—disabused of the notion that anyone else from their plane survived. They then split up and scour the beach. Easley hunts for firewood, the boy for something to eat.
Although Easley is better prepared this time around, tonight’s fire still gives him trouble. His ribs ache with each breath he draws to blow on the embers. He is pleased, at least, that he has used less lighter fluid.
The boy arrives with a jacket full of fat blue mussels and half-curled mollusks, some bashed beyond recognition and oozing into the fabric. Triumphant, he dumps them on the grass then marches back to the beach. He returns with a flat stone, which he places close to the coals.
“I was wonderin’. How do we know these things are safe to eat?”
Easley looks up and reaches for one of the cracked mussels. He bites the inside of his lower lip to draw a little blood. He then dips a finger in the mussel’s gooey flesh and rubs the juice on the sore in his mouth.
“What’s that supposed to do?”
Easley sweeps his tongue through the spot a few times, forcing the juice into the cut. “I don’t know whether or not they have red tide around here. If your lip goes numb, that means the algae’s gone bad. Toxic. If it doesn’t, you’re safe.” Easley waits a few minutes and even pinches his lip a couple of times to make sure. When at last he nods, the boy rubs his palms with glee.
They place mussels on the hot flat stone, watch them open in the heat. The boy presents the first one to Easley, still steaming in its shell. Together, they each extract a morsel of meat and chew, staring at each other over the flames. The boy makes a face, but quickly grabs another.
They spend the better part of an hour roasting and eating dinner.
For Easley, this scene, this feeling summons an old sailing trip among the sheltered Gulf Islands with his brother, Warren, the last such trip of the season, the first they were allowed to take on their own. The boat was too small to sleep two in comfort so they spread blankets on a leeward shore. As the eldest, he was in charge of everything that trip—the charts, the sailing, the food. It was not as if Warren, then thirteen, could not share these tasks. He was already an able sailor. Easley kept him from any real responsibility precisely because he could sense his own primacy fading.
The grass around the fire dries out and their clothes lose some of the dampness that has dogged them the whole day. After they’ve eaten, the boy gets up and goes to the stream for a drink. He returns, wiping his lips with the back of his hand, looking down at Easley.
“Where’d you learn that stuff about mussels?”
“Where’d you say you’re from?”
“Don’t think I ever did.”
“Well, now I’m askin’.”
“I’ve been living in Seattle the last few years,” Easley explains. “Before that, Vancouver.”
“Up in Canada.”
“That’s where I’m from.”
The boy processes this information silently, like he’s busy running sums. He says, “Never met a Canadian before, I don’t think.”
“Well now you’re bunking with one.”
“You could’ve filed your report from Adak. You weren’t supposed to be on that plane, were you?”
“Now that you mention it, I don’t know much about you, either,” Easley says. “Give me the highlights. We can fill out the details as the weeks and months go by.”
“There ain’t gonna be any goddamn weeks.”
Easley sees the failure of his joke and regrets it. The boy stretches out on the opposite side of the fire and props his head in his hand. He studies Easley intently, taking the length and breadth of him.
“How old you say you were?”
“Thirty-eight. What part of Texas you from?”
“That would be a West Texas accent you picked up on. Roan, Texas. Big enough to have two taverns, small enough to know the bra size of every girl in town.”
Clearly, this line has passed his lips before.
The boy describes a land that won’t support a crop and oil wells that show little or no return. A father he never knew, the constant move from shack to rented shack. Friends who sharked at pool, baptisms in an irrigation canal, cold beer smuggled into a summer picture show. Easley envisions a hot, dry waste that leaves your shirt stiff with sweat.
The boy wanted to play football but, lacking size, discovered his heart had to be twice as big as the next guy’s. He figured his wasn’t. He did well enough at high school to go off to a semester of college before joining up for the war. When he left for basic training, his mother wouldn’t even see him to the door. There she stood, he says, framed in the greasy window with a blank expression and arms folded tight across her dress. Before the truck pulled away, he distinctly remembers seeing the lights switch off and the house go dark.
Easley feels himself back at the edge of that familiar empty space, the gap into which he feels compelled to offer up some private portion of his life. He wants to tell the boy about losing his brother to the war. And now, perhaps, his wife. The boy bares himself intuitively. Easley wonders, why can’t I respond in kind?
The boy sits up and pulls out his pile of crushed tobacco. He rests it in the crease of his lap and reaches for a big brown blade of grass at the fire’s edge. The air begins to stir again and stars poke through the clouds. There is no hint of the moon. Easley watches the boy place tobacco in the supple blade, then roll it back and forth. He licks it like cigarette paper and tries to seal it shut. It mostly works. He pinches the tips and ends up with a sad little cigarillo. The boy smiles. He pushes the end of it toward the fire, puffs a few times, then exhales in a deeply satisfied stream. He offers it to Easley, who gladly pulls the warm smoke into his lungs. Easley favors a meerschaum pipe, back in his other life, but now finds this sorry roach a little taste of heaven. The boy rolls another, and they lounge warm and satisfied, listening to the surf. It is the first such contented moment they have had since tumbling from the clouds.
When the wood runs low they bury the coals and return to their hiding place. They roll themselves up in the parachute and try to ignore how the sand leaches heat from their bones. At least they are out of the wind. After much turning and shifting of positions, they settle in and listen to the rhythm of the falling tide. Easley feels himself wandering off toward sleep when he hears an almost imperceptible sound, something faint and reassuring. The boy whispers under his breath. He is giving thanks for having dodged the enemy, for the mussels and sticks of semi-dry wood, for the gift of another day. He thanks the good Lord for the company of one John Easley.
Rain disperses the fog, increasing clarity. It reveals a mono chrome world of varying shades of smoke. They stash the parachutes and strike out in search of food, shelter, signs of other men, the warmth of locomotion. The only creatures they encounter are glaucous-winged gulls wearily patrolling the beach. Easley observes raindrops roll off their feathers in perfect beads, as from the hood of a wellwaxed automobile. The gulls appear to be looking back at him the way people might watch a convicted man on his way to the gal lows; curious, but unwilling to make eye contact out of respect for the condemned. Easley thinks of how they might taste roasted over the coals of a driftwood fire.
After covering several miles of shore, it becomes clear that the island does not offer up shelter gladly. Beaches curl round coves and end on rocky headlands. Up from the high tide line are rolling fields of rye slicked tight against the land. Then, after some two hundred feet of elevation gain, snow. Neither tree nor shrub worthy of the term. No bushes laden with summer berries. No grazing cattle or sheep, or even deer, rabbits, or squirrels. The only possible sources of protein are also visitors here—birds of the sky and fish of the sea.
The boy, out in front, works hard to stay ahead, his posture betraying the effort. At any moment, they could be spotted from miles away, find themselves the subject of sniper fire.
At the next beach, they encounter a little rise that graduates into a three-story peak of rock. They scan the horizon for friendly ships and the hills for enemies, then scramble up, crouching, careful not to offer a profile against the backdrop of sea. The boy is seized by a coughing fit and is forced to sit and catch his breath. Easley studies the empty land. Nothing presents itself for comment. Only smug birds skirting the shore. More of nothing, nothing more.
As they scramble down, Easley casts his mind back to the plane, the drone of the engines, his quiet, helpless panic after antiaircraft fire ripped through the cabin and wings. He remembers the pale cheeks and frightened eyes of the copilot. How the man methodically double checked Easley’s parachute before tossing him out the hatch.
The rhythm of boots through sand underscores the silence between them.
Eventually, the boy asks, “Why do we want these islands?” “I’m sorry about your friends. Sorry about Sanchez.”
The boy looks back across the sand. “We should walk on the grass as much as possible. We’re leavin’ tracks down here.”
At the end of the beach, they encounter a ravine where a rivulet trickles off the edge and onto a pile of stones. It falls directly past the mouth of a cave, and by the time it has traveled half the twenty-foot drop, it scatters in a steady rain.
The cave is about forty feet deep, maybe half as wide, and opens at an angle to the beach. The rocky floor rises to meet the ceiling in back. Most of the walls are weeping. The back section, at least, is clear of the spray. Like newlyweds inspecting their first bungalow, they exaggerate the positive, ignoring the fact that this is a hole in the side of a ravine.
“It’s far enough up from the beach so the tide won’t be a bother.” Easley sits down on a rock.
The boy wipes his nose on his sleeve. “We could divert the stream.”
Easley looks up and sees a determination that could quickly become infectious.
“We could go up top and build a little dike,” the boy continues.
“Some rocks and a little sand. A few hours’ work.”
“We could build a fire, but only at night,” Easley says, gesturing to the mouth of the cave. He looks to the other side of the ravine then up at the sheet of sky. “The way it faces, no one would be able to see the light, except maybe a passing ship. We’re miles from the Japs, they’ll never smell the smoke.”
The boy scratches his head. “I’d say you just bought yourself a cave.”
By the time Easley returns with their parachutes, the light can no longer support colors beyond gray. The boy is nowhere to be seen. The little waterfall that had spilled from the upper lip of the cave has been reduced to a slow drip. Inside, high in the back, a bunk of grass has been constructed. A kind of enormous nest. The boy has done wonders in his absence. Easley had been wary of splitting up, even for a few hours, but now sees the wisdom in it. He makes his way up to the back of the cave, sits on the nest, decides it will serve them well. His gratitude at having shelter, however crude, is tempered by the fear that they will both soon perish here, cowering in the damp and cold as hunger overtakes them.
Helen found their first home by spotting a small handmade sign in a big bay window. The rental market in Seattle had been tight with Boeing working full tilt, churning out bombers and fighters to fill the skies over Europe and the Pacific. She had been searching for over a week.
It was the main floor of a lean little Victorian on Aden Street. The owner wore a matching dark suit, hat, and demeanor. His elderly mother had recently passed and he was unprepared to part with her possessions. He had moved everything upstairs, leaving the lower rooms for tenants. Said he wanted good, reliable sorts to occupy his childhood home. If things went smoothly, they would have the first opportunity to make an offer after the war. When it came time to hand over the keys, the man hesitated in what seemed a spontaneous, emotional response. Helen touched his shoulder, as she would a troubled friend. She told him not to worry, he had made the right decision. Easley watched the man’s mood transform utterly.
That first night in the house they made love on the living room floor. Easley knew then that he loved Helen above his own life. In that moment, he imagined the joy and pleasure he took in her body was more complete than any man had ever known. He composed and took a mental photograph—of her, in that light, in that space and time. He had the presence of mind to sense the pinnacle. He felt it in his bones. Beyond this night, his life could not hope to be improved. To Easley, it felt as if they had discovered, invented something pro found and new. He shakes his head at the ridiculous conceit of it all. He wanted to tell her, but thought better of it. Despite being nearly a dozen years younger, she might laugh out loud at such adolescent delusions.
How, he wonders, have I traveled so far from that night?
The boy enters the cave carrying a jacket full of mussels, loose smile tugging at his lips, proud of what he’s accomplished.
“You’ve been busy,” Easley says, glancing up to where the waterfall used to be. “You’ll make someone a fine little wife one day.”
The boy consolidates his load in one arm, freeing the other hand to offer a single-finger salute.
There will be no fire this night. Even the gray light is in short supply, and there is no time to mount a search for fuel. The wind is picking up. They observe and acknowledge all this without words. They have already begun to develop a vocabulary of glances and gestures.
They crack mussels and eat, listening to the wind whip the shore.
Neither is satisfied, having consumed only enough to dull the hunger. The raw, rubbery flesh has already begun to repel them. In this low moment, Easley must find a way to embolden both himself and the boy.
Tomorrow, Easley says, we’ll build a proper fire pit. They will cook their food on smaller, hotter fires that require less fuel. The warm rocks will retain heat, some of which will even find its way back to their bunk. Maybe they should rig hammocks. From this cave, they will hide from and observe the enemy until such time as they can signal for rescue from the bombing sorties, or join up with the invasion that’s sure to come. The Japanese have already been here for ten months. How much longer do you suppose Uncle Sam will allow such an affront to continue?
The boy nods. For the moment, he seems resigned to reason over rank and protocol. Easley is pleased, because they must come to agreement on each and every decision. They must be of one mind. The peace between them is their only security.
That night, up in the nest, the boy pulls the parachute to his chin. “Storm’s blowin’ in,” he observes. Easley listens to the fury of the williwaw, the signature gale of the Aleutians. It accelerates down cold mountain slopes to the sea. Here, the wind becomes an avalanche, a full stampede of sound and sensation that strips the moisture from your eyes, bullies and casts you to the ground. He too pulls the silk close and marvels at their good fortune of having found shelter in time. As the wind shoves its way across the land, only a slight breeze reaches his cheeks.
“What’s the first thing you want to do when we get out of here?” the boy asks. His back is pressed into Easley’s.
“First thing?” Easley sighs. “Sit down to a steak and chocolate cake. You?”
“Shower. Plate of ribs. Get drunk and drive around in my truck with the heat blowin’ full . . . Man, I’d love to go for a drive.” “Got someone waiting for you?”
“My dog Queenie. She’s an old bitch now, but she’ll knock me over just the same.” The boy rolls over on his back. “What happened to that lucky girl of yours?”
Easley no longer feels any anger—toward the boy for having asked, toward Helen or himself. He considers telling him everything, but the boy speaks first.
“If you’re not of a mind to discuss such things, then don’t. I don’t mean to pry.”
“It’s all right.”
A loud crack and crash thunders down the shore, where an out sized wave impales itself on the point. They pause and listen to the violence.
“I think we ought’a have a rule around here,” the boy continues.
“Let’s drop the bull and answer questions straight. No tall tales or secrets. No dickin’ around. Way I figure it, we owe it to each other.
We might as well be the last two men on earth. So let’s do each other the honor of being straight with one another.”
“Sounds fair to me.”
“Think we’ll ever get home?”
“Might take a while.” It is as close to the truth as Easley can get. “Part of me has plans for tomorrow,” the boy replies. “Ideas about how we can get meat and wood. Make things better ’til they come for us. Then part of me feels like a ghost. Like we’re already hauntin’ this place and we don’t even know we’re dead.”
“Listen. We’re both strong. We’ll find better food. The weather will improve. We’re already into spring . . . You had a rule. Now I’ve got one. I say we each get one shot at this. One chance to complain. The other listens, tells him he’s being a crybaby, then we get back to business. This is your chance to whine, so you’d better make it count.”
The boy’s chuckle turns into a cough, then silence.
Hours later, Easley jerks awake. The wind seems to have died down entirely. Morning can’t be far. Out past the beach, over the boom and hiss of breakers, he hears the burble of an outboard motor and the slap of a hull passing through the chop. He props himself up on an elbow and peers out into the gloom. A strong beam of light sweeps across the beach. It flashes past the very mouth of the cave but does not linger. Rescue launch from a U.S. Navy vessel? This first hopeful thought quickly fades. Such a small craft could only have come from the island itself.
A moment later, the sounds and light are gone. The boy does not stir. Easley lies back down beside him.
Excerpted from The Wind is not a River by Brian Payton. Copyright © 2014 by Brian Payton.
First published 2014 by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. First published in the UK 2014 by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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