In a While
When I was little, I assumed Shoals Point—a volcanic shore a few miles from Sitka and close enough to kayak to—was Shoal’s Point, like Shoal was some dead man who liked to surf there or camp there. And maybe Shoal was like my father, in that sense—the way I imagine he must have longed for that ocean, that campground, that place. That longing like leaving a piece of the self, like naming it for someone. Shoal must have been a man; Shoal’s Point must have been his, in some imperfect way, and Shoal must have had an imperfect father, an imperfect campground, a perfectly imperfect afternoon paddle worthy of memory.
Names. Shoal as the Imagined, if just by a five-year-old—names that are said and names that make it onto the map and names that are make-believe. Shoal as a construct, never truly a man but an observation, a shoal, like people-watching. Like deciding who he must have been without ever knowing. Shoal like naming your child after a place instead of vice versa.
I am five and sitting in the purple double kayak and doing none of the paddling, just wearing the blue spray skirt and eating Scooby Doo fruit snacks. Papa says we’re going to camp somewhere new, which doesn’t mean anything at age five, because everythingis new, except for the toys I got for my fourth birthday and my parents.
I say something like okay, where are we going, and maybe Papa repeats himself, or sighs, or pops open a beer, and we keep going, going. Sunny.
“It’s Dinosaur Head,” he says, and I say okay again, because that’s a cool fucking name, for once, not lame like Gagarin or Shoal’s Point or Kruzof, places probably definitely maybe named for people I don’t care about. Because at age five, it’s all about dinosaurs, about registering for kindergarten while the first graders do a fossil finding activity in the school commons, and if that’s what school is, then I want to be there already, sifting through the sand the way I do with my oatmeal every morning, the heat of boiled water hatching tiny sugar stegosauruses and tyrannosaurus rexes.
But when we get to Dinosaur Head, I don’t dig for fossils. Papa already told me that there aren’t any around here, because it’s all igneous and metamorphic and sand. So I build a circle in the grey-black sand, instead, and call it Sitka, and find the exoskeleton of a shrimp as I’m excavating. When the town opens for residents, I make the shrimp climb the steps of the driftwood radio station, and when he puts me to bed, Papa tells me that Sitka will be washed away by morning. I cry, probably, because I don’t understand tides, and I forgot to keep them in mind when constructing Sitka. Thoughtless city planning.
Papa gets up to leave and I say when will you be back, and he says in a while, and I don’t know how long a while is.
My dad is still alive and I’m camping with my entire family out at Kruzof Island, where the volcano is. By the creek named after Fred-apostrophe-S: Fred’s Creek. And there’s all these cool rock formations because the creek was here before Fred was even born.
I’m seven, and my cousin Lucy and I think it’s warm enough to go swimming, because late May feels as good a time as any and we like the water, have been taking to it since forever.
We’ve forgotten our swimsuits but that’s fine, we wear shorts instead—Lucy’s idea—and walk to the creek in bare feet. Slip in. We are swimming in the round pool halfway between the beach and the forest when suddenly I stop swimming, my body cold enough to seize. Lucy’s father fishes me out and whisks me to the cabin, sits me down beside the stove, asks Lucy to go get me a change of dry clothes. I am not allowed to move. My lips are blue and my teeth are chattering and swimming had felt like such a grand idea. And I feel so humiliated right now, sitting wet and cold by the blazing iron stove, waiting for Lucy to come back with dry clothes that I don’t want to wear. It builds to a tragedy: me, the little blonde girl with blue lips trying to decipher what went wrong. Trying to see why my body couldn’t take me to where I wanted to go, trying to see past the worried faces, trying to return to half an hour ago, when Lucy and I were equals, when my body and this place had not betrayed my intentions. Because that’s what this is, or at least what it feels like—betrayal.
The shirt Lucy gets me is pink and cozy and I thinks it’s ugly. I am held; I am disdainful.
Later that day, I hike eight miles in the ugly dry clothes, and this is how I will finish the story when I retell it again and again. I almost got hypothermia swimming in Fred’s Creek and then I walked the farthest I’ve ever walked.
Lucy comes on the hike, too, but turns back long before I do. A couple weeks later, she says that she hadn’t wanted to keep walking, that I was bragging too much. I wonder if I am wrong to think there is a reality in which I die that morning.
“A while is twelve minutes,” Papa says.
Oh. That’s a long time. I go back to crying and singing about Sitka and isn’t that why we cry, the way we’re half-asleep or caught between logics or not all-the-way thinking? Aren’t our tears, some nights, a mourning of drowsy eyes that have closed before that while has passed?
The next morning I go to pee in the woods and run back to our campsite to toss my toilet paper in the fire, and then I trip or slip or something, put my right hand out to catch myself, and land in the flames. It hurts.
Papa retrieves me, dials 911 on his radio—Christmas present from my grandparents—and soon the Coast Guard rescue boat is here, at Dinosaur Head, hull running over what’s left of Circular Sitka. I am hurting and wondering if Papa will come with me, and then wondering what will happen to our camping gear, tent still pitched in sand and seagrass, everything intact except for my sleeping bag and fleece jackets and the town I built. This is what swaddles me, little girl with the Dutch boy haircut huddled in the Walmart sleeping bag with the red ninja stars.
Papa shows me how hot the fire was: Look, Ariadne, it melted a hole in the fleece, but it can still keep you warm. I pretend to agree, but as the days and weeks and month pass I don’t trust it to keep me warm the right way anymore. Don’t trust that my father thought it could keep me from the flames. Don’t even remember him tossing it around me as I fell. I’m busy remembering the sensation of running, of tossing, of hot coals coming closer. So I just wait until I’ve grown out of the fleece, wait until I can’t squeeze into it and we have to give it away. I pretend to think I’ll miss it, but it’s too much of a triumph, or at least an erasure of some deep failure—the way Papa had tried to make the coat better by cutting off the melted part of the sleeve with the blue-handled scissors.
And I don’t cry about the fleece like I cried about Circular Sitka, because it feels more stupid than anything else. Papa says he didn’t know the fleece would melt when I question him, when I look at him with incredulous eyes. We both learned something about loss that day, and I don’t learn until after he’s dead that he pins this all on himself—the upset fleece, the scarred arm. I don’t understand the tenderness in his reply—“I wanted to keep you warm,” and “I reached for you with what was nearest to me”—because he destroyedthe pink fleece coat, the one that fit me best. Because when we are five it’s not just the big things we miss, but the microscopic, the invisible, too. Like the apostrophe that was missing between the L and the S in Shoals Point, and the way it hurts to scrub away the dead skin from the burn on my arm. The way my bandage is so large I call it a cast. The way my father won’t let his wife do this scrubbing—scrubbing that makes me screech like a pterodactyl—because this, he tells himself, is his penance.
Ariadne Will was born and raised in Sitka, Alaska. A recent college graduate, Ariadne currently works at a university library in Oregon. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in the online lit mag FEED, the Writer’s Foundry Review, and Alaska Women Speak. In her spare time, she writes for her local newspaper and takes walks in the rain.