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Bones. They know the call of the ice. They sense the relentless push of the glacier. Not just the bones of the living, but the bones of the dead, too.
I’ll tell you what I know—the strange things that happened one bleak and terrible September. I’ll tell you once, but I’ll deny I ever said it, and you’d be better off if you forget you ever heard it. But I’ll tell you all the same.
People say it all started the day that newlywed couple died at the face of Exit Glacier, but they just say that because people like things to have a beginning and an end. It makes them comfortable. The truth is, it started before any of us were born. Maybe even before there were people here at all.
“This world is older and stranger than any of us knows,” my dad said. “Never forget that, Anika.” My dad’s a helicopter pilot. In high season—that’s summertime—he makes his living taking tourists up into Alaska’s big sky to get a firsthand look at Nature’s Majesty: the Harding Icefield and the many glaciers that carve their way down the mountains, feeding into Resurrection Bay. We lived in Resurrection Bay—my dad, my brother, and me—in the port town of Seward.
Seward, not Sewer. It was named after the guy who bought Alaska from Russia. Not our fault he had a lousy last name.
In Seward, it’s all summer trade. A lot of businesses close up come fall, and people leave for the winter. But there are enough uses for a helicopter pilot in Alaska that my dad has plenty of work all year-round, so we stay.
On the day those newlyweds died, Dad got quiet and paced around the house, doing things like looking in the refrigerator as if he might find something uncommon in there, then turning the TV on and off, like he forgot what show he wanted to watch.
“You think he saw it, Anika?” my little brother, Sammy, asked as we watched our father bumble around the house that evening.
“He couldn’t have seen it,” I told him. “He was flying people up to the ice field when it happened.”
“Yeah, but he coulda seen it from the sky while he was flyin’.”
The truth was, Dad had given that very same couple a helicopter tour the day before, but the winds were too rough to land. Still, they wanted an up close and personal experience with a glacier, so they took a self-guided walking tour, right up to the face of Exit Glacier. It’s a glacier that hasn’t reached the sea for maybe a thousand years. It just kind of stops a few miles inland at the silt-filled remains of its old track, which now looks more like a tornado path—a long stretch of earth cleared by nature’s force and filled with little hills that mark the glacier’s advance in winter and retreat in summer, when it melts faster than it flows. And glaciers do flow, just very, very slowly.
The newlywed couple ignored all the big red signs that said DANGER! STAY AWAY FROM FACE OF GLACIER! They went right up to it, touched it, and even got some old lady to take a picture of them while they stood in front of it.
That’s when a hunk of ice about the size of a Hummer calved off the glacier directly over their heads, and, in seconds, newlywed became newlydead.
“I think the glacier kilt ’em on purpose,” Sammy said.
“Keep your opinions to yourself,” I told him. “Especially the stupid ones.”
So that night we had soup for dinner because Dad was too distracted to cook.
“I should have landed with them yesterday,” he kept mum bling. “If I had, they wouldn’t have gone out today, and they’d still be alive.”
“It’s not your fault, and you know it,” I told him.
“I know, I know; I’m just saying.”
My dad’s life is a box of “what ifs” neatly wrapped up in regret. Like the way he blames himself for Mom dying, even though he wasn’t even in the room when Sammy was born. It’s as if he thinks that if he feels bad enough about it, he’ll wake up one day and it won’t be true.
Me, I’m a realist. Things are the way they are. I move forward, kind of like a glacier—slowly and with no regrets, because I know what it takes to be happy.
The next morning the picture of the newlydeads that the old lady took was all over the papers—and not just the local ones—because it caught the smiling couple and the falling piece of ice just a few feet over their heads. It was one more thing for Dad to make himself miserable over.
It was the third week of September. With fall setting in, more and more people were closing shop for the winter, escaping to wherever it was summer folk lived for the rest of the year. It wasn’t exactly a ghost town here, but for the first few weeks it always felt like one until we got used to it again.
I decided to go up to Exit Glacier after school the next day—not just because of the tragedy, but because it had always been my favorite place. I could go there alone and not feel alone. I could go there with friends and somehow have a better time just because I was there. I’d read my favorite books there in the glacier’s shadow and had written my best poems. I was never dumb enough to get too close to its face.
Going there on that day, though . . . it was more than just wanting to be in the company of the glacier. Maybe I was having some kind of intuition or even a premonition—not the kind you see, but the kind you feel in your gut when you know something big is about to happen.