No morphine: no use, the doctor said.
The boy would die within the hour, and morphine was in short supply. He was saving it for the soldiers--for American soldiers, he added, checking the wall clock, then his watch, then me. It was four o'clock, 1600 hours Alaskan War Time, on July 6, 1945, a mere thirty-four days before fighting in Japan officially ended. The boy was Japanese.
When I was a boy, I was told a writer should date his age from the day he started writing. I can't remember why I was told this; I just remember that I liked it enough to repeat it over the years to those who might benefit from the wisdom. To anyone. To people like my drill sergeant.
He had a quick reply: a soldier should date his age from the day he started killing.
If that's so, I was even younger than the world took me for back then. An eighteen-year-old sergeant, I'd been in the army for ten months, waging a secret war, from Alaska, for six. I'd trained in bomb disposal. I'd learned to speak some Yup'ik, I'd fallen in love with a woman who talked with touch, I'd shot a bar glass out of my captain's hand.
And now, in that tiny room, in a mission infirmary just inland from the Bering Sea, the weather cool and wet, I was sitting at the side of a boy who was dying.
I was AWOL.
And for the first time since putting on a uniform, I was crying.
At eleven, the boy died. At midnight, I turned three days old.
I'M A WANTED MAN.
That's hardly enough to distinguish me around here, of course. I've heard it said that a percentage of Alaska's population is always fleeing something--the authorities, spouses, children, civilization. By comparison, I have it easy. It's just a couple of old priests hunting me, and I know them both. I could take them if it came to that, and it won't.
I'll be honest up front. They're coming after me for the most mundane of reasons. The only thing slightly extraordinary is that they're coming at all. For a while, I thought they would just forget about me, and that I'd be able to live out my days like most fugitives here: not entirely free from want, but free from those who want you. But no, first one sent a letter and then the other: these initial letters just suggestions, of course. Then a second round, with a request. And the third round, with an order. Come home.
Now, I served in the army. I know what it means to disobey an order, even a bishop's, and yet I did.
Let them come.
They say they will. This Friday, two days from today. My superiors (the bishop himself, they'd have me believe, and his right-hand man) are flying all the way out here to my lonely home in the bush to haul me in for the crime of--believe it or not--growing old. Apparently you can't be seventy-three and live in southwestern Alaska, though this fact seems lost on a good portion of the population here in Bethel. But no, it's been decided. It's time I came in, returned stateside, or, as those here say, Outside. When I've asked what I'm to do in retirement, they've said, Rest, write--almost sixty years in the bush, what stories you must have!
A younger man will replace me, I'm told, but who are they kidding? Silver-haired fiftysomethings count as young priests these days. And the fact is, fifty may be too old--if the silverhair being moved here is from, say, Phoenix. Me, I grew into this environment. I came during the war, left for seminary, and returned to stay. I've had fifty-six years to get acclimated, and the hardest part of that acclimation came when I was young and could take it. Show me the golf-tanned, fifty-year-old suburban priest who will survive transplantation here--I don't care how carefully he parcels out his multivitamins.
There is a bit of mystery to their pursuing me. There's another Catholic missionary I know who lives up north on the banks of the Yukon, in much rougher conditions than the relatively civilized frontier life here in Bethel (which includes electricity, a hospital, even alcohol--though only by mail). This Yukon priest, he's eighty. Maybe ninety. No one's coming for him. And his parishioners don't even like him, at least not as much as mine do me.
It's why I didn't answer any of the letters I received. One, I've aged into a fine contrarian, but more important, I wanted these men to come tell me face-to-face that I needed to retire. That way, when they said, It's because you're getting old, I could study their eyes and see what the other reason, the real reason, is.
I have an idea.
It's not about the man I killed, or the boy I didn't save. It's not even about the woman I loved.
But the shaman--
Well. Yes. This all might have something to do with him.
THE LOWER PART of Ronnie's leg was not torn off by wolves, though that's what he tells most people. And if someone got to see it, which almost no one ever does, that person might come away thinking he was telling the truth. His right leg ends just above the ankle in a tight red scar, the exact size, shape, and color of angrily pursed lips. The skin around it, smoother than silk from all the creams and ointments medical staff insist he use, colors with the weather and hosts storms of its own: clouds of bruises--red, blue, and purple--gather, encircling the stump, spreading, growing darker, and then fading. The amputation is relatively new, the prosthesis even newer, and learning to walk again has been a battle for him. After watching more than one afternoon's practicing devolve from laughs and jokes to curses and grunts and perspiration and Ronnie begging, Please, please take it off, let the swollen stump pulse and breathe as it wants to--well, a person wanted those wolves. He wanted them. I wanted them, pacing, their fiery eyes sizing him up, but at least looking him in the eye, not like the diabetes that was truly to blame.
By some accounts, I should be glad that Ronnie--just installed in his room, at the end of the ward, with windows looking west--is ill; for years, he had been trying to kill me. Nothing special, just a shaman trying to roust a priest. But shortly after arriving in the hospice, diabetes flaring and pneumonia threatening, he summoned me to his bedside. Plans had changed, he said. He was no longer seeking my death. And to prove his sincerity, he gave me the talisman that he'd planned to use to speed my demise.
It resembled a voodoo doll, and it resembled me, as much as such a thing could: short and starting to stoop, gray hair, something like glasses. He had dressed me in my blacks, although I rarely wore or wear clerical garb out here in the bush. Such clothes aren't warm enough for winter, too scratchy for summer. Besides, people knew well enough that I was the local Catholic priest. Ronnie knew; that's why he wanted to kill me: my God and I had driven his people and powers away. We had had this argument for decades, ever since I came to this part of Alaska to replace the previous priest, who had disappeared (some said literally, said they watched him fade away, limb by limb, until all that was left was a mouth in an O of horror, until there was nothing).
Ronnie liked to suggest that he had something to do with this disappearance. He was, then as now, the local shaman, a bit green for the role at the time, but few sought the job (Ronnie would claim the job sought the man). Ronnie himself wasn't a great advertisement. Whatever his success had been with my predecessor (whom my superiors suspected had simply fled, hysterical, out into the tundra one winter night--we'd lost more than one man that way), Ronnie's efforts with or against me went unrewarded. Charms were tacked to my door; various sacrifices filleted and placed about my corrugated tin chapel; and, of course, much scheming and chanting and brow furrowing was done out of sight. All to no avail.
And for an interloper, I was, and am, innocuous enough. Better yet: I have had a positive effect. We missionaries all tell ourselves that, but I have, I really have. With the help of modern medicine, I have healed the sick; with the help of the bishop, fed the hungry; with help of wealthy, faraway, misty-eyed parishes, clothed the poor. I have insisted on saying Mass, but I adjusted my schedule to meet theirs. What's more, I've eaten their food, I've tried to talk their language, I've played their games with their children. The previous man outlawed traditional dancing. I've encouraged it and attempted to learn.
And I've blessed things. Babies, houses, holes in the ice. Dogs, and later, snowmachines. Outboard motors and cases of Crisco. Nets, knives, and sewing needles, yes; but guns, never. And once, a dead woman's stuffed parakeet, although that was more exorcism than blessing. Her widower had remarried; the man's new wife said the parakeet helped friends cheat her at cards. Saint Francis, I prayed, it's not enough that this woman has to make a life in the subarctic tundra? With a husband who keeps his first wife's parakeet? Peace, Saint Francis. Go easy, O Lord.
And this hospice, Quyana House. It's a curious, mostly empty place, located well outside of town. It blossomed on the grounds of an abandoned radar installation, and is supported almost entirely by a Seattle family whose son drowned here one summer while serving as a missionary-in-training.
THE HOSPICE IS OFTEN empty because it's hard to get to, and people don't quite trust this Outside generosity. (Quyana means "thank you" in Yup'ik, which is all well and good, since this part of Alaska is Yup'ik Eskimo, but people find it a strange name nonetheless: just who is being thanked, and for what?) Plus, the old and terminally ill usually die at home--or at the hospital in town. The hospital is known as the Yellow Submarine, but the way it snakes along the tundra, long and flat, its every corner rounded, it looks more like bars of soap smushed together, or maybe some Outside architect's idea for a hospital on the moon. It stands on stilts; just about everything in town does. Otherwise, buildings would melt the permafrost and slowly sink into the tundra. But the hospital's awkward seventies Star Wars design makes its stilts look like landing gear; the entire building seems poised for takeoff, and there are those in town who sometimes wish it would.
The hospice, on the other hand, is a soaring structure, seemingly composed of equal parts glass and light. We all await the storm that will level it, but month after month it survives, and maybe I shouldn't be surprised: I've blessed the place half a dozen times. First, when they cleared the land for construction; second, when someone had fallen from some scaffolding and broken both legs; third and fourth came when a new wing went up and when it collapsed; fifth was the grand opening; and sixth was the dedication of the wing where Ronnie now lies, ready to discuss the terms of our truce.
I had put the doll replica of me in my breast pocket, taking care that the little arms and head were peeking out. At first, I did it as a joke, but then I had this sudden, inexplicable need to cough, and I thought: play it safe. I gave the little guy more room and Ronnie smiled. He knew I was thinking of the word, the word that's become a central tenet of my amalgamated Alaskan faith, a word that inevitably becomes part of any religion that spends too much time in the subzero subarctic dark: maybe. No one from Outside understands this law of the bush. No one understands how rock-solid principles can slide here; how black-and-white so inexorably mists to gray; how a priest, a true believer, a defender of the faith, a dealer in eternal truths, can find himself spooked by a makeshift voodoo doll. It can't happen. It's not possible. You repeat this like a mantra, and then you get back to the word.
Maybe.From the Hardcover edition.
Copyright © 2004 by Liam Callanan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.