the museum of americana

a literary review

The Witch Goddess of Colder Climes — Fiction by Russell Hehn

 

When Scarlet and Gus went into town for supplies or to spend a warm night in a shoebox hotel, they’d caught wind that there were people—natives—living north of the bay beyond the sawtooth ridge in dugout halls ensconced with whalebone. Leftovers, said the locals, from when the Russians converted the bulk of the Aleuts to The Faith some two-hundred years before. These Aleuts kept to their old ways, and nobody bothered them, though there were stories—tales of witchcraft, of shape-shifting, of conjuring, of whale-riders, of ice crystals falling from the sky in jagged spears, of bears that growled in Latin, of twin girls who came and went with quarter-moons—none of which sounded believable except to that gullible part of the brain, a remnant from childhood, which wants us to believe in things.

Less fantastic stories indicated smoke spires rising blue above the quay and pilots reporting signs of life.

“I’m not being delusional,” she said, describing what she’d seen on the ridge—six crouched figures, their stiff cloaks domed like thatched huts, heads topped with thick caps that fell to their brows, only their eyes suggesting they were human. “I think I’ll go find them. If they’re friendly, I’ll stick around. I’m ready to stick around somewhere.”

This conversation carried more heft than Gus was accustomed to. Until now, there had been only daydreamer’s remarks about a humble cabin in Colorado or the Carolinas; or perhaps a retrofitted Airstream pull-behind they could tug along and live out of; or a houseboat in Terrebonne; an Earthship in the Nevada wastes; but whatever half-formed plan they danced around, the bedrock of this imagined future was to abandon everything and adopt a renunciant life—to get away from it all. But now Scarlet was getting down to brass tacks, to talking like she meant it.

Who would’ve imagined that some twenty minutes later, lush red locks and scuba gear and gymnast’s thighs and all, she would be flippered and mauled and torn mostly in two by the enormous mother seal they’d come to call Kathy?

That’s the story Gus told, anyway.

Truthfully, he’d not seen Scarlet die. Truthfully, she woke the next morning and told Gus she was leaving. He could come along if he liked.

The last he saw of her, she was clambering over a rocky embankment. But who wants to confess of their abandonment? Who can admit to cowardice?

So he came up with the seal fib.

~

That had been a year or so ago, according to Gus. “Or so,” because the Kathy Incident sent him on a two-month road trip/bender at dives from Juneau to Asheville that almost cost him his liver, so things were a little hazy. To the authorities and the media and Gus and Scarlet’s boss and their families and close friends, both the story of the Kathy Incident and Gus’s reaction to it seemed legitimate and his haziness understandable. “I’d get piss drunk too if my Norma got done in by a jobber like that,” said Chief Investigator Bill Honeytoe. “Just piss drunk.”

Gus was sober now, and grieving. His grief, at the prodding of both his shrink and his editor, had taken the form of a wildly successful blog that made Gus more money than he could spend. He had a book deal and everything. Seeking Scarlet, it was called. Rejecting Vengeance, Discovering Closure. The therapist got eight percent for coming up with the idea and the editor another ten, and there was never a question as to the validity of Gus’s story. The truth would have been much less believable. This trip to Alaska—or “Back to the Bay,” the title of this series of entries—would be Gus’s account of opening his heart and forgiving the seal that took his lovely wife. With this accomplished, so said his shrink, Gus’s mourning would be complete.

Of course he’d blogged this to his faithful followers, and of course he’d been met with cheers of solidarity and provocations and, most of all, warnings. “It’s too soon, Gus!” or “This could break you,” which he doubted, for he was supported by the steadfast pillars of the grief of millions—fathers who’d lost sons, crinkly widows, scorned lovers, refugees, would-be mothers. And all that cosmic weight, the thunder of countless, beat-down souls, rallied around Gus there on the bay, and their grief was his and his was theirs, etc.

Although the seals had returned in force, he’d yet to spot Kathy.

“Hey,” said a kid, one of those transient undergrads who spend summers working for meager wages in places like Alaska. His ice-blue Peninsular Liners name tag said Kyle. “Sorry to bother you, Mr. Gelowitz.”

Gus was a special sort of celebrity. Instead of manic huddles of paparazzi, he got solemn nods. Instead of busty blondes with outstretched Sharpies and tits a’ wobble, he got pats on the back and kisses on the cheek. Instead of frat-boy hollers from across busy intersections, he got this: calm, empathetic nudges from his defenders. “Hello.”

Kyle spoke as if he were reading potential side effects of an anti-psychotic: “I am not allowed to speak with passengers while on duty. However, I am a great admirer of yours and not at all deranged. My shift ends at ten o’clock, and me and the guys plan to grab drinks at the lower-deck bar if you’d like to join us. Enjoy your stay on the Steady Rose, sir.” He clicked his heels and off he went.

This wasn’t the first sit-down chat with a fan, but whatever Gus had to say was on the blog, in the book, available for download on NPR’s website. To have passing conversation in a coffee shop line with an old couple who’d recognized him was fine. To exchange pleasantries and have gratitude expressed to him over urinal dividers was okay, too. So were the not-so-subtle advances of flowery undergrads and soccer moms with savior complexes. But a tête-à-tête with Kyle and the gang in the close quarters of the lower-deck bar gave Gus the heebie-jeebies. Those innocuous one-on-one chats quickly devolved to heavy questions like “So, how are you doing?” or “It hit me hard what you said about the loss of physical intimacy. Have you thought any more about that?”

On the upper balcony a couple stood matching in billowy blue rain parkas. As one, they gave the familiar solemn nod. Gus nodded back and looked away. Gus solemnly nodded back then looked away. Curling his hand as if to make a spyglass, he scanned the waters that had consumed his wife, then retired to his quarters.

~

He went back to blog, to let the masses know where he was in the world and that he was doing okay, better than expected, that the weather was fine, that the seals were feeding, basking on the shores, that he’d not yet spotted Kathy, that, cold as it was, Scarlet radiated here from beneath the frigid deep, etc. He’d chartered a boat to take him out the next day to find Kathy.

“Bastard,” said Gus.

He put on some pants and went to find Kyle.

~

The lower-deck bar—The Musketeer—boasted an impressive collection of taxidermic animal heads. Accompanying each was the gun that slaughtered the beast and a Plexiglas box with complementary bullets. Beneath the red stag, for example, hung an antebellum Spencer, smooth-stocked and brassy, with lead slugs below. The smoky mirror behind the bar was decked in ivory; ancient elephant guns stood sentry behind the booze. Only Kyle was there. There wasn’t even a bartender. And the gang? Not a sight to be seen of the ole gang. A setup.

If he was going to stick to his story—the story that a seal had pummeled his wife to drowning—he should be having some rage-fueled outburst at the sight of these heads, forever preserved in their most vicious moments. But he didn’t. Instead, Gus walked toward the bar casually with his hands in his pockets, cowering ever so slightly from their glassy-eyed gaze, attempting to give the impression that the bestiary bothered him only mildly. “Slow night, huh?”

“Yeah,” said Kyle, chuckling, “Cabana Night’s the thing to do, I suppose.”  He’d expected the kid to spring up and come to attention, to stutter and yammer, to offer him a drink, but Kyle played it cool, if indeed he was playing it. He might have been even-keeled by nature. He might’ve been stoned. He had the look of a stoner. “Mind if I have a seat?”

“Take your pick,” said Kyle, presenting the array of stools with a wave. “I’m not technically on duty, but I’m in charge of the bar for the night. Stu the bartender caught a wicked bug. Been on the shitter all day. It’s not like any of those septuagenarians is gonna skip out on their paid-in-advance Pu-Pu platter to come drop twelve bones on an apple-tini down here. Sweet solitude,” said Kyle, stopping for a deep gulp. “I can get you whatever or you can hop back there and get it yourself. There’s a certain thrill in being the man behind the bar for once. You’ll see.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said Gus.

What doubts he’d had about this rendezvous were melting. There was no apparent fanaticism in Kyle, no potentially murderous obsessiveness, none of the warning signs he’d read about in the literature on dealing with fans—sweating, winking, fainting, vomiting, etc. In fact, if Gus were a younger man, this was the kind of guy he would have run with. The fact that Kyle had used the terms “wicked bug” and “septuagenarians” in the same breath spoke volumes and reminded him of Butch, his roommate from sophomore year of college—Butch the Philosophy Major who preferred to be called a philosopher; who probably had a drinking problem; whose defense against the injustice of the world was to deride it; who held the terrifying power of sowing doubt and of exercising influence in people of lesser intelligence; who regarded all people to be of lesser intelligence unless they were ancient or dead; who may well be dead himself. Butch had been both intriguing and dangerous: intriguing because rarely has there been a soul to both answer to and wield the powers of logic so deftly and subtly, dangerous because he drew out and let blossom those same abilities of strict rationality in whoever was caught in his snare. And here was Kyle, self-assured and discerning—Butch made over in boat shoes and a gauche ponytail.

“What brings you to Alaska?” asked Gus, playing up the whole bartender thing.

“That’s not important here,” said Kyle. Classic Butch move. Tough nut to crack. “Everybody’s got their tedious stories for going places. Simply put, I had to get the hell outta Dodge, as they say.”

“As they say,” said Gus, raising his glass. The two drank their beer in the waters-testing silence of new acquaintanceship, lifting their eyes to the low-lit ceiling. “Shots,” said Gus. “How about a couple shots? I’ve been puddle-jumping for a week and a half. I might just tie one on tonight.”

“The good stuff’s in the cabinet,” said Kyle, tossing Gus a loose key that must have belonged to Stu. Gus began lining the bar with the dusty bottles. “Here’s what I’m thinking, Gus, if you don’t mind me calling you Gus. I figure I’ll give you the rundown of my knowledge of you and then you can rattle off whatever tales I don’t already know or drop any sage advice I don’t bring up.”

Gus still wasn’t used to people knowing things about him. “Go for it,” he said. “I doubt anything I have to say is exactly sage. Unless, of course, your wife was killed by a seal.”

“I’m not married,” said Kyle.

“Me neither.”

The first of the shots went down raggedly. Whatever composure they’d hoped to maintain was shattered in hacks and sputters.

“Here’s what I know of you,” Kyle began. “After leaving your Appalachian hovel at eighteen, you enjoyed a stint as an up-and-coming photographer for a community college newspaper. You won some award or another for taking good pictures and giddy-upped to Arizona where you interned for the Cardinals’ PR crew. You loathed football but the gig was, if I can quote you here, ‘the cog that cranked you toward Scarlet,’ who was also a photographer, also an intern, but for the Chargers. Hell of a line, that one, Gus. ‘The cog that cranked you’? Yeesh.”

“It’s amazing what you’ll come up with when you know people are listening,” said Gus. “Did you drag me down here to lampoon my stylistic choices?”

“You call that a lampooning?”

Gus eyed him over the rim of his glass. “Why don’t you just keep going, Kyle? You were doing so well.”

“Your first glimpse of one another—you and Scarlet—was from across the gridiron through your telephoto lenses. Until Scarlet’s death, you would mimic this moment by looking at one another through the ‘lenses’ of your thumb and forefinger.”

Gus shifted. That stung.

Kyle didn’t seem to care.

“So, you and Scarlet became a juggernaut team in the photography biz. Covers with National Geographic and Time and all those other big-deal publications. A fun Playboy exposé on a scandalous politician. There’s a blurb on the back of your book from some chick that says something like ‘More than any couple since the advent of photography, the life of Scarlet and Gus was open, exploited and raw, though they rarely appeared in a shot.’ Is that right?”

“Something like that.”

“And I know about the seal incident, and I know you’re here on some lame but well-intentioned crusade for closure. But I don’t want to press you about any of that. Unless, of course, you want to be pressed about it. That’s none of my business. Let’s do another quick shot. Blanton’s. Hook me up.”

Gus uncorked the bottle and poured a round. “I made it everyone’s business, I suppose. One thing about having millions of people tuned in to your personal life is that you get the same questions over and over. It’s like, check out the interview I did if you wanna know. Know what I mean?”

Kyle stood and stretched, cracked his neck back and forth and began pacing. “Is it exhausting?”

“What’s that?” Gus slid Kyle the shot and brandished his own, which they quickly disposed of. “Is what exhausting?”

“Fame. Exposure. People being dependent on you in their weird, vicarious, ephemeral way. I couldn’t handle it.”

“I suppose so,” Gus leaned against the ice machine. “But not in the way you’d expect.” He was back lit by the mirror’s glow, framed by the elephant guns and their great, torpedoed bullets.

“Regardless of the way it’s exhausting, it is, nonetheless, exhausting. True?”

“True…”

“I’ll be honest with you here, Gus.” Kyle stopped. Where before his eyes held a genial, faraway quality, they were now sharp, smoldering, keenly focused on Gus.  “I lied to you when I said the gang was gonna toss a couple back. I don’t have a gang. I hope you don’t mind.”

“You got me,” said Gus, smiling; his speech slurring a bit.

“Good,” said Kyle. “Now that we’ve established trust, you give me your truth.”

“My truth?” laughed Gus. “Kid, you know everything about me. You and everybody else who reads my bullshit blog. The whole goddamn thing’s all there for you to read. Every word of it.”

“Fine,” said Kyle, all the youth and hubris gone. He squared his shoulders across the bar. “If you want to tell a story I’ll believe, grab that fucking gun.”

~

Gus sat bundled at the bow and Kyle stood upright, plying a smooth hand on the outboard motor. With clear skies and the bright lunar glow, they stood a fair chance of finding Kathy. The gun lay swaddled in the bottom of the boat, loaded and waiting. Neither of them was sure the thing would even work, but this was more about the gesture, as Kyle had said. “Even if you pull the trigger and the son of a bitch is a dud, you still pulled the trigger. You went through with it.”

The lie had sunk its claws in deep and was tugging him across this wet-black night. Certainly this would cause a stir, which would not upset his publisher. His therapist might have something to say about such an unorthodox brand of self-medication. He’d get a letter from PETA for sure. But he’d lied before; he could lie again. He was good at it now. Even if he did put a bullet through her skull he could say, “Kathy eluded me. Perhaps I’ll go back next year.”

Whatever the lies, it was true that he’d been here with Scarlet. He could see the snow-capped ridge where she’d disappeared that gray morning. He’d called out to her, and she’d kept going.

The dinghy drew near the shore. Gibbous forms of sleeping seals glowed in the blue light. Kyle cut the engine and they drifted, paddling half-drunk with frozen oars. He’d come here to forgive Kathy, to put that cumbrous part of his life behind him, and now he was going to kill her instead. Was this what he’d wanted to do all along? He still had time to fess up. If Kyle was actually like Butch, he’d carry the secret to his grave. He was a clever little shit, and proud. For Kyle, the prize was not in spreading the news to the masses that Gus Gelowitz was a fraud; for Kyle, the prize of outing the truth would be a personal triumph. He’d lord over it like a dragon on his gold. But Gus didn’t say a word. Wouldn’t give Kyle the pleasure.

He stepped wobbly on a shore cast ghostly in moonlight. They did not speak. Kyle stayed in the boat as Gus wandered among the resting bodies of pups and cows, their heavy breaths a chorus of steampipe and whalesong. Kathy was there. He knew her immediately—the bulge of her back, the coarse sheen of her fur, the sound of her body. The gun came up sluggishly and fought against him when he went to aim. Even if it wasn’t the feel-good ending they’d hoped for, Gus knew people depended on him. They needed to know someone could experience loss, grieve, and emerge on the other side, scarred but stalwart. He checked to make sure Kyle was bearing witness, but he got none of that.

Kyle’s eyes were fixed on the ridge line, squinting against the bitter moon in its dying arc. Gus followed the gaze and saw her there, bare-armed and pale, done up in a habit of white muslin with vermilion bars running its length from shoulder to ankle. From her ears, bones of tiny animals hung capped in shining silver; charms danced from her rings. Her hair was piled atop her head and secured with thick, white twine in a haphazard nest; strands and tatters hung around her eyes, her shoulders. And her face was hers—unchanged—and not that of a ghost. To her sides were six squat figures like thatched huts, their faces hidden.

Of all the schemes they’d had—all the cabins they’d dreamed up and gypsy maps they’d made—this was what she needed to be. He couldn’t say why he thought so, but he did. In that moment, with his finger resting on the trigger and the sleeping beast at his feet, all his knotted fury, all his hurt and frenzy came seeping out of him in wisps. He lowered the gun and turned to face her full-bodied. He raised his hand to his face, and so did she.

Kyle would not ask who the woman was. Instead, he would become complicit in the lie. The truth was his to lord over. In the morning Gus would find Kathy and forgive her for taking his wife from him. All his lies were true now. Scarlet was no more, only a goddess among the Aleuts.

 

~  ~  ~

Russell HehnRussell Hehn is a teacher, woodworker, and writer in Birmingham, Alabama. His work can be seen in McSweeney’s, Barcelona Review, and Lime Hawk among others. His children’s book, Gull, written with his wife Katherine Webb (the poet, not A. J. McCarron’s girlfriend) is available through Amazon’s Kindle store.