by Daniel Willbach
They ride out of Boulder on the motorcycle in the early morning, when the earth is wet and the low-lying sun glistens off the meadows. At seventy miles an hour they rip through wisps of fog. They lean into a curve and the cycle hugs the road in a perfect, mindless balance. “I love it!” Helen shouts. The sheer exuberance tinged with fear – she remembers her first ride on the big roller coaster at Muskegon – continues in larger and smaller doses over the next few days. It excites her, keeps her on her toes. At night in the tidy little motel rooms she’s unable to sleep much but discovers sex has taken on an edge, become wilder. If only Mom could see her now!
Claire Pennington had made her worry plain before her daughter went away to college. Helen was close to six feet tall by the time she was a high school sophomore; competitive, athletic, she never dated. When she was an undergraduate she had a few fleeting, forgettable boyfriends; in the first year of graduate school, she became a lab rat: work, work, work.
After she and Joe had gotten together she realized just how starved she had been. Unlike the conscious planning and attention to detail that she lavished on her graduate school research, she thinks of sex with Joe as a sport. She’s a good enough athlete to know that after learning the basics, the best moments occur when she stops thinking and lets it happen. In order to do that, she has to trust Joe, and she’s learned to trust him. It feels at times like she’s known him her whole life or – who knows? – in a former life.
As for Joe, sex with Helen is emphatically not a sport, because this much pleasure has never resulted from any sport he’s ever played. It’s so exciting that it’s serious, in a way. Nights of lovemaking followed by days of being hugged on the cycle, her mouth tickling his ear: what could be better?
Joe is going to Alaska to buy land. He’s preparing to homestead in the Alaskan wilderness. Helen has come along for the ride. Now that she’s completed her masters in molecular biology, she has the time. Truth be told, back in Boulder she hadn’t slept in her own apartment for months. They had settled into a routine that he would now like to upset, if he can persuade her to stay with him in Alaska.
Helen could certainly take it physically. She’s in great shape: she stayed up with him on that crazy cross-country ski climb at Devil’s Thumb and backpacking up Longs Peak, too. He knows she hopes to do as much field study as lab work in the future.
They’re both at their best outside.
When they arrive in Bellingham to take the ferry to Juneau, they pitch their tent among a cluster on the upper deck. Helen smiles – no more high-decibel sex. The ferry begins its voyage up the inside passage to Alaska, threading its way through islands covered with spruce and hemlock, occasionally emerging to cross stretches of open water.
“Joe, look how close we are to land. There’s no shore, just a straight plunge into the sea.” They glide out onto an expanse of gently swelling water. Helen grabs Joe’s shoulder and leans into him, pointing, “There! Right there! It’s an orca, a killer whale. The thing that looks like a shark’s fin sticking up.” They travel through ever-changing atmospheres – enveloping white fog, fine drizzle in pale gray light, brilliant sunshine – Helen excited and talkative, always touching Joe.
Joe Stein has made this trip many times. Helen makes it new. She reminds him of why he had been so drawn to the fierce beauty of this country from the beginning, why he had thought about homesteading the first time he came up here. They move very close to the shore of a passing island and the wall of trees becomes a forest. He remembers staring out of the car window as a kid trying to see as far into some endless forest in Michigan as he could, picking out paths through the trees, yearning to explore, to go deeper. He grew up near Chicago but spent summers in Michigan, not that far from where Helen grew up. He imagines holding her hand as they weave through the trees, ducking under one hemlock branch and over another, sticky needles giving off a fresh tang.
His first glimpse of Helen had been five months ago on top of Flagstaff Mountain. He strode up in hiking boots, shorts and tee shirt, despite the temperature in the forties, red bandanna wrapped around his head. Just before the top a group wearing sweatshirts with the logo of a local restaurant, The Green Duck, blocked his path and avery tall woman – taller than he was – caught his attention. She moved easily, didn’t have that slump-shouldered look so many tall women had; she was unusual looking, very fair skin setting off black hair and dark eyes and you wondered where she got such white skin. At the summit this group began to unpack an elaborate picnic. “Open for business?” he asked the tall woman. Helen bestowed one of her eager smiles on him and he was hooked.
On the afternoon of the third day Joe and Helen pack up their tent and watch from the upper deck as the ferry glides into Juneau’s harbor, heading for the dock next to a towering cruise ship. The town climbs up the steep hillside in front of them and they search this vertical map for the Hardy’s bed and breakfast where they’ll be staying. Joe plans to meet with real estate agents here.
The next morning he jumps out of bed, leaving Helen asleep, and makes a cup of coffee. Tingling with caffeine, keyed up with plans, his body propels him around the room, bouncing on the balls of his feet, feeling the huge knots of his calf muscles. He remembers this can’t-keep-still feeling when he forgot his Ritalin in junior high. When he got to high school he discovered football, an outlet for that energy. They praised him not only for learning something but also for roughhousing and causing mayhem, the very things that used to get him into trouble.
He’s finally going to put his old man’s money to use. He’s been working as a motorcycle mechanic, but that’s not what he wants to do with his life. On this score he’s felt pressure from his family. He’s going to have to do things his way. He’ll build his own house up here and live off the grid, damn it. He wants to be self-sufficient and live simply. As he says, “I want to live more slowly and get away from the bullshit.” Screw all the naysayers who don’t understand.
Aware of the excitement and the little eruptions of anxiety, he plops down on the rug next to the bed. Helen, now half-awake, watches as he stretches one leg out to the side, raises his arms over his head and slowly bends his torso towards his extended leg. He smiles at Helen, keeps his eyes on her, until his beard touches his knee.
“I’ve seen you do that many mornings. Teach it to me,” Helen says.
Joe sits back, leaning on his arms. “Come on down, I’ll show you,” he says, motioning with his head.
Helen gets out of bed and sits on the rug facing him, wearing only her underpants. But she hits the bed the minute she tries to stretch her long leg.
“Turn around,” he says, making a circle with his hand for her to fit in front of him.
She pushes herself around and nestles into him. “Finally, I’m driving,” she announces.
“Shush. Stretch. . . relax your leg, keep your knee flat,” Joe instructs.
“Do I bend at the same time I’m stretching my leg out?” Helen asks.
“No, wait.” He looks around at her leg. “That’s good, your knee’s down.” He slows down his speech to match the action: “Take a deep breath, raise your arms above your head.” His hands rest on her upper back, feeling the wing bones under her shoulders. “Now gradually exhale as you slowly bend forward over your outstretched leg to reach the pose.” As she moves forward her muscles stretch and the taut snake of her backbone appears. “Keep your spine straight. Bend from the hips.” He leans over and kisses her back, hugging her around the waist. “Stay in Alaska with me.”
Helen turns around and slaps his knee. “Only if you make coffee and have a surprise for me like this every morning.” This interchange hangs in the air. She’s on the verge of her first real job. The timing couldn’t be worse.
Joe thinks about these things as he visits real estate agents during the next few days and pores over photographs and topo maps. The day that he chooses Matasutchka Island – the state of Alaska will hold an auction later this year, selling beachfront land on this uninhabited and undeveloped island – Helen calls home to check her messages and picks up one from Vitaplex, a biotech company in Boulder. They seem to be impressed with her master’s research on drought-resistant Asian wheat strains. They make her an offer: more money than she’s ever made and some possibility of continuing her work.
After getting off the phone she slowly climbs the stairs to her room and flings herself on the bed. Excitement about the job alternates with the growing realization that since the trip started she can’t imagine being without Joe. How can she leave her bullfrog? She had named him the first day she met him in his hiking shorts, revealing those powerful thighs. As for her, in the midst of the research for her degree she had become Triticum hellenus, just another wheat strain.Can the bullfrog and the wheat stalk part? Together they share a love of the warm, wet earth. She’s unable to envision telling him the news. When she pushes herself to imagine it, her throat tightens up as if she’s going to choke, physically unable to say the words.
The next morning they set out together for Matasutchka in Dick Hardy’s old fishing boat. Dick shows off the finer points of his boat to Joe, who’s going to need a boat or a pontoon plane if he lives on the island. They discuss the relative merits of boats and planes. After about an hour in choppy seas Dick points out the island bobbing in the distance. Cliffs slowly rise higher and higher, seagulls wheeling and crying in front of them; evergreens cover the slopes above to disappear in the low-lying clouds. The boat follows the rocky shoreline through brown kelp ribbons. Joe and Helen scan the shoreline, now a palisade of Sitka spruce, looking for their campsite. The boat rounds a point where eagles keep a fierce watch in the highest tree and a bay with a blue-gray gravel beach stretches ahead. After he checks his map Joe searches for the creek he knows is here. “There it is,” he points out. “The sand spit – that must be it.” They high five and hug and Helen feels it’s a culmination, as if this island had been their destination since they met. But this wasn’t her goal, was it?
Dick ferries them in on a little rubber dingy. Just as he throttles the engine to leave the sun breaks through – the gravel on the beach becomes bluer, the beached logs whiten, the salmonberry leaves acquire a metallic shine and a sparkle of diamonds floats where the sun hits the sea. “Perfect!” Joe exclaims. Maybe he’ll even persuade Helen to join him. All the cosmic forces are on his side.
That night after dinner they wander down to the beach to look at the setting sun, stay until the first stars appear, then go back and build up the fire. Sitting on a log in front of it, sipping tea laced with brandy, they’re soon hot even in tee shirts and shorts, shifting bare feet around so they don’t burn. Joe’s plans, which have smoldered all day, burst out like an explosion of sparks.
“I’m going to have to get a barge out here for the building supplies – hire a couple of men to unload them on the beach. I think the house should be right over there.” He points to the creek. “I want to use red cedar – wonderful wood, lasts forever. That’s what the Indians used for their huge dugout canoes. Should start with something simple, maybe 18 by 20, wood stove, loft for sleeping, definitely a big window on the ocean side. Probably need to install a gas generator but, depending on how the creek water runs, it might work to throw a little hydroelectric unit in there. What do you think? Good setting for the house?”
“A great setting. You could have decent food, too, because you’d make it yourself, instead of the awful restaurant fare up here.”
“As you’ve mentioned a few times.”
“Hey, the only thing that crossed my mind about Alaska and food before I got here was Baked Alaska, you know, the dessert. Now I’ve seen the real thing – Deep Fried Alaska.”
“You’re right. The food’s lousy. You could grow some of your own food here, though.” Joe puts his hand on Helen’s thigh. “Think of the possibilities. We’ve seen all kinds of berries growing. You could build a smokehouse and smoke your own fresh salmon – use alder, make it the best.”
Helen puts her hand on Joe’s shoulder and kisses his cheek. “Joe, I haven’t told you.” She swallows quickly and rushes on. “I just learned yesterday, I’ve been offered the job, the one in Boulder.”
“You were? How come you didn’t tell me?”
“I don’t know. I guess I was waiting for the right moment. When I checked my messages yesterday, there was one from Vitaplex. They offered me the job.”
Joe picks up some sticks and throws them into the fire; a whoosh of sparks flies up into the dark. He turns to her. “Congratulations! This is what you planned, that’s great. You know, I did dream about living up here with you.”
“I know. We’ve got to talk about it.”
Joe gets up and stares at the fire, looks up at the play of firelight on the spruce trees. He takes a few steps towards the ocean where the clouds have parted and the stars are out again. He feels a cool breeze against his fire-hot skin.
He comes back and sits down. “You’re right,” he says, “I’ve been afraid to bring it up. Guess your future seemed so obvious, so practical; it was like I didn’t have the right to mess it up with something as crazy as this.”
“This doesn’t seem crazy,” Helen says.
“Yeah, now that I’m actually here.” He stares at Helen. “Isn’t it incredible? Since we’ve set foot on the island it’s become a reality. Just in the last eight hours, however long it’s been.”
“This place is amazing but it’s really complicated for me. I’ve been in a fog since getting the job offer. I’m sorry. I’ve probably ruined the trip.”
Joe turns to Helen. “Would you consider living up here, helping me build the house?”
“God, Joe, I don’t know, that’s why we have to talk.” She shrugs. “I do keep coming back to I need to make money, pay back loans, get on my feet. And I really want to keep doing my research – some of these wheat strains might lead to something. They might make the difference between living through a drought year and starvation.”
“I know. It makes all the sense in the world.”
“On the other hand, especially since we’ve gotten here, I fantasize about living up here with you. I know your dream – a stripped-down life, sharing a little world with nature, close to the bone.”
“That’s it,” Joe says. He stares into the fire. Silence blossoms and settles between them. For him the island’s a plan, for her it’s a dream. He can’t have Helen, he feels it; she won’t come, of course, why would she? He feels angry. There’s nothing he can do.
Helen watches Joe brooding, the set jaw, his eye reflecting the dancing flames. As the silence lengthens her thoughts drift back to Boulder and her work. If she takes the job at Vitaplex she might end up on the hot, dusty plains of northern India, in Rajasthan, the original home of the type of wheat that has the most promise for her work. Could anyplace in the world be more different from this? She and Joe are so far apart. They have a huge space to cross. Why does she have to cross it?
“If I don’t stay,” Helen says quietly, “you could always come back to Boulder with me.” More silence. “Won’t you miss other people, alone in the long winter? Are you really prepared to be a hermit?”
“God! You too.” Joe picks up another stick and hurls it at the fire. Amidst the shower of sparks he turns to Helen. “You’re just like everyone else. Even my sister accuses me of wanting to be a hermit.” Joe shakes his head in disbelief. “I tell everyone it’s only an hour away from Juneau, like you saw. Besides, other people will be buying up here.” Joe takes a stick in both hands and cracks it over his knee; he feels Helen flinch. He stands up and takes a deep breath and gazes around. The looming darkness of the trees outlined against the night sky marks the beginning of the forest but he sees what looks like an opening.
“What’s that over there? It looks like a path,” he says, pointing.
“It is. You didn’t notice it before?”
“No. I’m going to see where it goes.”
Helen stands up, shaking her head. “I thought we were talking, Joe.”
“We have three days; I’m sure we’ll talk a lot.”
He sits down and starts to put on his boots and Helen remains standing, staring at him. He looks up at her. “Come on, we’ll see where it goes. It might cross the peninsula, a short-cut to the next beach.”
“It’s night. We’re hiking at night?”
“It’s pretty light out.”
Helen shrugs and sits down to put her boots on. Joe has walked a little way and motions for her to follow, but as soon as she gets outside the circle of firelight she stops. “God, you can see everything!” She turns around, staring.
“Yeah, it’s incredible.” Joe checks his watch. “It’s midnight, but we’ve still got some of the sun’s light.”
The sky is lighter than a normal night sky. Stars are visible, a half moon shines but the light around them doesn’t have the quality of moonlight. They can see the rocks up ahead, bordering the forest, even the leaves on the bushes and trees, but mostly in outline, no texture and no real color, just blacks and grays, except for a white tangle of driftwood floating, ghostlike, out on the beach. Joe moves towards the path and Helen follows. The strange light seems to interfere with depth perception; at some point Joe feels they should have reached the path, but nevertheless they walk easily over the rocks up to the start of it and Joe plunges in, disappearing. Helen hesitates for a second and then follows.
Joe turns to Helen. “Can you see me?”
“We’ll just go a bit of the way, get a sense of where we’re heading.”
Joe moves forward slowly and Helen follows. They both keep their hands out in front of them like two blind people – the blind leading the blind, Joe thinks. She’s following me now, but at some point she’ll stop, she’ll have had enough, enough fantasy, and go back to Boulder.
“Helen, do you see that up ahead?”
The trees begin to thin out and the sky becomes visible. They can see their way more easily now. They step out onto another pebble beach and into the light-infused air, an expanse of beach, sea and sky. A surprisingly warm breeze hits them as they walk towards the water. The ocean appears to be alive near the shore, glowing with a strange blue aura, each breaking wave bringing another cascade of light.
“I’ve never seen it but I’ve read about this. Do you know about bioluminescence?” Helen asks. Joe says no and Helen continues: “The algae here produce a chemical reaction that emits light in the presence of oxygen. It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
Joe pushes Helen, knocking her off kilter, asking, “You wouldn’t give up everything, your career, renounce the world, to be here and experience this every night?”
Helen laughs and pushes him back. “Why don’t you give it up and spend next year in Boulder with me?”
Joe grabs Helen by the shoulders and begins pushing her towards the water, saying, “I’ll plant you in this giant glob of agar-agar,” – indicating the ocean with a nod of his head – “culture you in the world’s largest Petri dish. You won’t be able to leave, stuck in jello.”
As Helen nears the sea she manages to turn so that they’re both standing at the water’s edge. Helen suddenly ducks down and grabs Joe’s knee to pitch him backwards onto the beach but Joe lunges over her and closes his arms around her back. He’ll keep her here. Helen spreads her long legs apart and counters his force with her own; if she pushes hard enough, she’ll push him back to Boulder. He is shocked at how strong she is. Locked in this fierce embrace, no longer laughing, gasping for breath, grunting with effort, in the dim light they seem to have become one: a strange, misshapen beast lurching on the shore of a phosphorescent sea.