From The Voice of the Golden North
Frank dragged himself off the couch where he’d been lounging all afternoon, and plunked himself down at the table. ‘That boy’s father –,’ he said, jerking his thumb at Guy, ‘he pay you anything to keep him?’
Guy ducked down further into his book. He wished Frank wouldn’t talk about him as if he wasn’t there. Aunt Mag grunted, and tasted the soup.
‘That boy give you any trouble, Ma,’ Frank flicked a stubby pencil across the table and it glanced off the spine of Guy’s book, ‘and I’ll fix him for ya.’
Aunt Mag never confirmed or denied Frank’s questions, and this only made Guy feel worse.
‘I’ll bring in the wood,’ Guy said. He put his book down and started to rise, but Frank slapped a big hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down.
‘I’m not done talkin’.’
‘Let the boy do his chores, Frank,’ Aunt Mag said.
‘What’s a matter? Nobody wants conversation around here?’
Aunt Mag turned around and looked at him sharply.
‘Let it go, Frank,’ she said. ‘Dinner’s nearly ready – stove needs wood.’
Frank retracted his hand and leaned back in his chair. He curled his lips into a grimace and snorted. ‘You heard her. Off you get.’
Out at the woodpile, Guy looked into the dense tangle of trees in the direction Girl had run off. The last time it had been three days. This time, Frank had already stayed four days and he wasn’t making signs of leaving any time soon. Girl would be hungry.
After dinner, Guy rolled up in a blanket on the couch – Frank had claimed his usual bed in the loft. Guy woke sometime around midnight. The sky had grown dark and Aunt Mag was playing solitaire at the table. Frank paced the small square of floor in front of the woodstove, grumbling about licence fees and a hunting permit.
‘$150 is all. You got the money, Ma. Don’t tell me you don’t.’
‘It ain’t the money, it’s what you want it for,’ Mag snapped back. ‘You think I don’t know what you get up to?’
‘I got me a real job with Patterson’s now. Big Bill, he gives me his best clients. I’m taking ‘em out for Dall up the Black River next Friday. I just need to pay my fees, is all.’
‘I ain’t got money to spare, Frank. Why can’t your boss pay the fee?’
‘I gotta pay my own, Ma. Everybody does.’ Frank slammed his hand on the table. The shadows from the lantern light swayed on the wall like menacing trees.
‘Hush, Frank. You’ll wake the boy.’
Frank lowered his voice. ‘His dad gives you money. I bet he does.’
‘That’s my business.’
Frank pushed back noisily from the table, and stomped out of the cabin. Through the window, Guy could see the red eye of his cigarette out in the yard by the woodpile. He heard Aunt Mag shuffle to her room at the back of the cabin and shut the door. Sometime later, the Jeep’s engine started up.
At dawn, Girl slunk into the clearing in front of the cabin and stared at the door with her wolfish eyes. Guy glanced up from his oatmeal and saw her standing out there still as a stone. He rushed out without his shoes, banging the door behind him. Girl was caked with dirt, her ribs clearly visible under matted fur. Guy threw himself down in the mud and wrapped his arms around his dog. She licked his face and sang her low, happy song.
At first, Aunt Mag didn’t notice that the earrings were missing. It wasn’t like she ever wore them. They stayed in their little velvet box with its snap-tight lid, tucked in the back of the spoon drawer in the kitchen. Another of Mag’s eccentricities, like keeping the kerosene in a big drum under the front porch. Every time Frank showed up smoking his cigarettes, Guy wondered if the whole place would simply blow to smithereens.
Aunt Mag rummaged for a ladle, then started to jerk the utensils around in a frenzied search. ‘Where the hell are they?’ she muttered, and yanked the drawer out all the way, banging it down on the kitchen table. She dumped the contents out and sunk into a chair, suddenly deflated.
‘He took ‘em,’ she said.
Guy had just come in from the woodpile. He was standing at the door with his arms full of kindling.
‘Took what?’ Guy said, even though he knew. Frank must’ve taken the earrings. That’s why he left in such a hurry in the middle of the night.
Aunt Mag didn’t say anything. She just rocked at the table with her forehead in her hands.
‘Your mother’s earrings,’ she moaned. ‘He took her earrings.’
Mag’s shoulders heaved, but she didn’t make another sound. Guy had no idea what to do. He took the kindling to the wood box and stacked it quickly and quietly. Then he sat at the table across from Mag.
‘Maybe not,’ he said finally. ‘Maybe they just got moved or something.’
Several minutes went by. Mag composed herself and sat up. She wiped her wet cheeks roughly on the sleeve of her shirt, and looked Guy straight in the eye.
‘Or maybe you took ‘em.’
Before his first trip to Aunt Mag’s, his Dad told him a few things. Mag was his mother’s sister, older by nearly a dozen years. ‘They were orphans, too,’ Mike said. He meant like you, Guy – but he didn’t say it. Guy bristled anyway. After all, he was only half an orphan.
‘Mag raised your mother up like she was her own child. She took it hard when your mother died.’
‘How come she never visits?’ Guy asked.
‘She doesn’t like the village. Heck, she goes all the way to Manokotak for supplies.’ Dad said.
‘She got in some trouble a long time ago. I don’t think she ever forgave people here for the way they treated her.’
That raised more questions than it answered, but Guy didn’t ask them.
‘She’s not a bad person,’ Mike said, ‘just a little odd in her ways. But she’ll take to you.’ His Dad had smiled then, and ruffled his hair. ‘You look just like your mother.’
Girl rubbed up against his leg and stuck her wet nose into his hand. Earlier, Guy had washed her in the big tin tub in the yard and Mag had allowed her inside to dry off by the woodstove. Girl stretched her paws out in front of her like an Egyptian queen, giving off that musty wet dog smell, and gnawed happily on a bone. It had felt better than Christmas. But that was before Aunt Mag discovered the earrings were gone.
He couldn’t stay in the cabin now that his Aunt had accused him of theft. He left her sitting at the table, and took Girl into the woods. He had to get those earrings back somehow – his mother’s earrings. Tears pricked his eyes and he rubbed them angrily away. How could he find them? Frank could have taken them anywhere – to a pawnshop, maybe, like the one on Seward Street in Dillingham – and Guy was stuck in the woods waiting for his Dad to come in from the sea.
Maybe, just maybe, Guy thought, Frank took the earrings for spite. When his Dad came to pick him up, he was determined to find them. In the meantime, he’d stay out from under Aunt Mag’s feet. What else could he do?
THE VOICE OF THE GOLDEN NORTH
Mr Tulloch had barely turned over the Skylark’s reluctant engine when he launched into one of his supply ship tales. Mr Tulloch served in the Merchant Marines during World War Two and sailed the North Pacific and the Bering Sea. ‘Not much of a seaman,’ Mr Tulloch always said. ‘They put me in the galley where I couldn’t trip over any ropes and fall into the drink. Can’t complain. It’s how I learnt short order cooking.’
It was pretty much the same every time Mr Tulloch got talking, although some of the stories were first-rate. Mr Tulloch’s ship had been torpedoed by the enemy twice, and the second time it’d gone down. Mr Tulloch was pulled from the sea by a sailor in a leaky lifeboat holding out an oar. Canadian soldiers in a troop transport ship had plucked them out of the icy water an hour later. But Guy had heard these stories so many times he just tuned out, staring instead at the numbing wall of pines and Sitka spruce that flanked the road. He had $34 in his pocket. What if it wasn’t enough? What if the earrings weren’t there? He wasn’t even sure kids were allowed in pawnshops.
Guy’s uneasy reverie was interrupted by Mr Tulloch’s voice. ‘Did I, son?’
‘Sorry,’ Guy said. ‘Did you what?’
Mr Tulloch laughed. ‘Did I ever tell you about The Voice of the Golden North?’
‘No, I don’t think so.’
‘Voice of the Golden North: serving Alaska, the Antipodes and Ships at Sea.’
Mr Tulloch glanced sideways at Guy, and grinned. ‘My father used to run a little station out of Anchorage during the Depression, six nights a week. Just a little place, all the equipment cobbled together from standard parts. He played music, brought in local talent, whatever he could get his hands on. Late at night he read out the news wires and personal messages. All those people out of touch – miners, trappers, sailors – they all tuned in and it meant a lot to them. You ever listen to the radio out at your aunt’s place?’
‘I don’t think she’s got a radio. No electricity.’
‘She has a generator, doesn’t she? For emergencies?’
‘Yeah. – Mr Tulloch?’
‘What’s the Antipodes?’
‘The South Pacific, son. Australia and New Zealand, and all those little islands trailing off to Antarctica.
Mr Tulloch swung the car onto Seward, Dillingham’s main business street, and stopped in front of the Key Bank. ‘I’ll be about 20 minutes,’ he said. ‘You wander around here awhile and see what’s new in the store windows. When I come out, we’ll duck into Radio Shack and look at kits.’ His eyes sparkled. Guy gave him a questioning look. ‘Ham radios, son. A boy’s got to have a hobby.’
As soon as Mr Tulloch disappeared into the bank, Guy approached the pawnshop. It was a square, one-storey building, squat and plain, painted an ugly shade of grey, with three red plastic globes hung above the door. The interior looked dark and not very inviting. Guy pushed the door open, and a buzzer sounded out back somewhere. He blinked his eyes to adjust to the dim light, and thrust his hands in his jacket pockets. The shop smelled like burned popcorn and cigarettes. Three long counters lined the side and back walls. Lit from inside, they gave off a wan yellow glow. The counter to his left was filled with shotguns, pistols and hunting knives. All around the shop, on the floor in front of the counters and hanging from the ceiling above was every imaginable thing: a push mower, a couple of chainsaws, some crockery, a utility sink, a couple of neon beer signs, a grandfather clock, and a whole squadron of bicycles in assorted sizes. There was even a small motorbike, still caked with spring mud. A naked bulb hung above the back counter, and behind that, a plastic mosquito curtain covered a narrow doorway. Blue smoke curled like a cat’s tail around the light, and whisked away when a short, stocky woman pushed through the curtain.
‘You lookin’ for somethin’, sonny?’ She smoked a cigarette and studied him through narrow slits of eyes. ‘New bike? Skateboard? Got a couple of those out back, ready to go.’
‘No, ma’am,’ Guy said. ‘Jewellery. Earrings.’
To his surprise, the woman threw her head back and laughed. ‘Very gallant of you, sonny.’ She stubbed out her cigarette in an over-flowing ashtray. ‘Queen Isabella of Spain pawned the crown jewels, you know. To pay for Columbus’ trip to America. Bet you didn’t know that!’
Guy shrugged, but he couldn’t help smiling. The woman had black hair streaked with grey and flat high cheeks. She could’ve been Aunt Mag’s sister.
The woman smiled back. ‘What some women will do,’ she chuckled.
She leaned over the back counter and pointed down. ‘Jewellery’s here, such as it is. Lotsa recycled wedding rings, some gold chains, not much else.’ The woman lit another cigarette, turned her back and began rustling through receipts on a little desk tucked in the corner.
Guy stepped around the bicycles and peered into the case. There were a couple of pairs of hoop earrings on the far right, nestled in a mound of dusty velvet behind a Harley-Davidson pendant on a thick silver chain.
‘Nothing else?’ Guy pointed at the pile of earrings. The woman turned around.
‘I got some others out back. Pretty precious. Can’t let ’em go yet.’
‘Can I see them, please? It’s just – I’m looking for something special.’
The woman considered him for a moment, then disappeared out back. When she returned, she was holding a small green box in her cupped palm. There was a funny tingling in his stomach, like the flutter of moth wings. The woman snapped the box open and held it under the light. The earrings were the size of shirt buttons, the opals smooth and fiery, ringed with diamond chips. They blazed like tiny planets in her hand.
‘Man’s got another two weeks to come collect ‘em. Suspect he won’t. Cost a lot, these. More’n you got in your pocket.’
Guy swallowed hard and kept his voice steady. ‘How much?’
‘I can let ‘em go for $180.’
‘Right, thanks,’ he said. ‘I’ll come back then, in two weeks.’
‘Dream on, sonny,’ said the woman, but not unpleasantly.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Abby Letteri completed an MA in Creative Writing at the IIML in 2004. The excerpt from her work in progress, a novel for children titled,The Voice of the Golden North, was written during the 2006 Children’s Writing Workshop with Eirlys Hunter. Abby lives with her family on Wellington’s rocky south coast.