The Man from Morning Mountain
The man from Morning Mountain plopped his box of rutabagas down. “I’ve come to pay my taxes,” he told the woman clerk. “Name’s Jeffrey Burns.”
“I know your name,” the woman said in a dry voice. She was Mildred Hennings, a Native American, and she spoke with the precise enunciation she had learned a half a century before in Sitka, at the Sheldon Jackson School.
“You going to take my rutabagas, Mildred?”
“We don’t take rutabagas, Jeff.”
The vegetables lay in the bottom of a beer box. The box, wet from its boat ride to town, had lost its rigidity. Its sides, with the printed name Rainier, looked crumpled. Mildred swept the counter with her hand, as if the box’s seeping dampness might spread and leave a pool. “This is all a game, Jeff. You’re making a stunt out of offering rutabagas. You want people to say, ‘The government is so unfair to him. He hasn’t got money to pay, and the government is like a wolf. It will take his land.’ Fill out the forms, Jeff. Follow the law. Nobody wants your land.”
Jeffrey removed his hat and shook raindrops off it. The hat had been stamped from a sheet of grey plastic into the shape of a fedora. Its only virtue was its practicality. It had no beauty. After he’d returned it to his head and adjusted it the way he liked, he lifted his box of rutabagas and turned to go, but the dampened box was weak and the bottom flaps gave way. Rutabagas rolled across the floor.
Mildred Hennings could see Morning Mountain from her kitchen window. Morning Mountain, she knew, was not its real name. It stood on an island named Dempsey, and was only called Morning Mountain informally. On those rare days when the islands around Boon were free of clouds, Mildred, looking out across a small-boat harbor and past the quiet waters of a strait, could see the lighted peak, like a promise of something she felt she was owed. The peak had glowed in morning sun since her forefathers had fished the waters around Boon and hunted on southeast Alaska’s islands. Her ancestors had seen the tint of golden light before sailing ships or steamships or airplanes or cars. None of them had ever brought rutabagas to borough offices. They had never even heard of rutabagas.
Now Mildred had a rutabaga on her kitchen windowsill. After Jeffery had gone, she’d found it underneath a desk. It was too late to run after him. He’d left with his vegetables in a paper bag Mildred had rummaged through an office closet to find. The last she’d seen of him, he’d been hugging the bulging sack to his chest. In his plastic hat, embracing his bag of wet rutabagas, he had created the impression he was a perfect fool. Mildred, annoyed, watched him out the door. She told herself she was illogically annoyed. She had nothing invested in Jeffery’s dignity, and if he wanted to try paying his tax bill with vegetables, that was his business.
She took the loose rutabaga home, thinking that her son-in-law might like it. His name was Dorrin, and he came from Minnesota. He still had family there. Maybe they ate rutabagas. They were Swedes.
Jeffery drank tea in the messy kitchen of his friend Rex Stabler. The room smelled of spray paint because Rex made doll-house furniture out of flattened beer cans. He sometimes asked for Jeffery’s help in flattening the cans, but once they had been cut open and pressed flat, Rex sprayed all the paint. Jeffery didn’t like the paint smell. He didn’t help cut the flattened cans into strips, either. He didn’t like that job because the sharp edges of the strips often sliced into his fingers. Rex’s fingers had been toughened by all the years he’d done that work since the army had released him. Even when he coiled the strips into delicate shapes for miniature chairs and tables and love seats and chandeliers, he rarely cut himself.
“You should find a way to dull the edges so children don’t get hurt,” Jeffery had once suggested to his friend.
“Children should wear gloves,” Rex had answered.
His response had seemed impractical to Jeffery, but he and Rex hadn’t argued. They had too few other friends. Both were army veterans. Rex had been wounded in the fighting in Korea and drew a pension from the government. He sold his doll-house furniture to supplement his income, but Jeffery, who wheeled Rex to craft shows, knew sales at those infrequent shows were slim.
Jeffery had an army pension, too, but it wasn’t for a bullet wound. It was for trauma that came from mental distress. Delicacy between the two friends kept that subject from ever coming up when they conversed.
“Apple,” Mildred’s grandson, Cody, shouted when he first saw the rutabaga at rest on his grandmother’s windowsill. The three-year-old, in his yellow raincoat, stood at Mildred’s side with his arms raised toward the vegetable.
“It’s not an apple. It’s a rutabaga,” Mildred told him.
Her son-in-law, Dorrin, boomed the word back like an echo. “Rutabaga? Mama Mil, you eating rutabagas now? You going Swede on us?”
Dorrin had brought the children for Mildred to babysit. His wife, Mildred’s daughter Bernice, was waiting tables on a double shift at the Sunset Point Café. Saying ‘Swede’ was like a joke for Dorrin because his nickname in the family was Big Swede. He whispered, “Swede… Swede… Swede…” to the baby, Dot, whom he had laid down on the kitchen table so he could peel her out of her snowsuit.
“Where you going?” Mildred asked her cooing son-in-law. He had just freed the baby’s legs. Dot kicked and laughed. Mildred, drying her hands on a kitchen towel, stood at Dorrin’s side to smile at her granddaughter.
“What you got to eat here?” Dorrin tickled Dot’s plump belly as he spoke, but his question was for Mildred. “Not a rutabaga. Don’t tell me rutabagas. I hate those smelly things, even though, I must admit they turned me into the handsome Nordic prince I am today. I owe my Nordic beauty to eating rutabagas morning, noon and night from babyhood through all my formative years. If you feed Cody rutabagas you’ll turn him into a Nordic prince, too. Blond hair. Blue eyes. A completely different child than the little stoic you see now.”
“He’s not a little stoic.” Mildred stooped to help her grandson out of his raincoat. Cody knew he’d been mentioned in the adult’s conversation, but he could only follow what was being said by silently shifting his gaze from speaker to speaker. He seized the moment when his father wasn’t booming to turn to the window and again stretch out his arms. “Apple.”
“It’s not an apple.” Mildred kissed his thick, black hair.
Dorrin, who made furniture – he had made the kitchen table on which he’d stretched out baby Dot –had recruited a friend to help him deliver a book case. He boomed goodbyes and love-you’s to Mildred and his children as he rushed out the door. Mildred, by then, had Dot on her hip and stood searching her refrigerator for apple juice to pour for Cody, who sat with patience at the table his dad had hand-crafted out of spruce.
Jeffrey beat a bad squall home. He pulled his skiff up on the beach under the first bite of pelting rain. After he’d rushed his groceries indoors, he hurried back to tie a tarp over his outboard motor. Rain would pool up in the bottom of his skiff, but there was nothing he could do about that. In the morning, if the rain had stopped, he’d bail his boat out.
With his Evinrude protected, he trudged indoors again. His home’s familiar wood-stove smell welcomed him. That, and the dirt smell. His cabin—one room—was like an animal’s den. His own smell was in it, but he didn’t recognize that. He could smell bacon grease. He could smell chain-saw oil, the weather-proofing ointment for his boots, a dust odor from the wool blankets on his narrow bed. He inhaled just one breath of the rich mixture of his home and then turned with brisk efficiency to build a crackling fire in his iron stove. He lit a kerosene lantern. He slid his wet jacket on to a wire hanger and hung it on a hook where it could dry. He pulled off his boots and squirmed his feet, in their thick woolen stockings, into his comfortable slippers. Then, with the radiant heat from the wood stove beginning to banish the chill, and his tea kettle warming water for coffee, he turned to the task of putting his groceries away.
He’d selected his groceries at Mr. Papendopolous’s little store, the closest grocery to the small-boat harbor in Boon. He’d paid for them, in part, with rutabagas, which Mr. Papendopolous had bargained with him for. The Papendopolous store was one of the few Boon stores that bought his rutabagas, and Jeffrey knew the transaction, which wore the clothes of commerce, was actually close to charity. On visit after visit, he’d see his rutabagas left over in the bushel basket where he’d dumped them. People lacked a taste for rutabagas, but that homely vegetable was almost all Jeffery could grow in his soggy garden. To keep them warm in the Alaska chill, he covered their beds with seaweed. It was a trick he’d learned from the cabin’s owner, who had lived a near-hermit in his home until he’d hurt his hand and needed a garden helper. The owner, while he was in the hospital, had let Jeffery move into the cabin. When that kind man died, Jeffery paid the cabin’s back taxes, and the place became his.
The smelly room warmed. The kettle boiled. Jeffery filled a cup with coffee and made a sandwich out of Spam and mayonnaise on white bread. He sat at his cluttered table in the pool of lantern light, taking contemplative bites from his sandwich and meditating in a dreamy way on the comforts of his small, solid home.
When the storm trailed away, next afternoon about three, Jeffrey went outside to check for damage. He re-positioned his rain gutters because gusts had twisted them awry. He kept two rain barrels planted at the front corners of his cabin. The gutters filled the barrels with the roof’s abundant run-off. He skimmed the water’s surface to rid it of the twigs and pine needles the storm had blasted in. He tramped around his garden to drag off spruce and hemlock blowdown. He patrolled the fence of posts and wire that protected his garden. The fence was stormproof, but it wasn’t rot-proof. Decaying posts were like a printed invitation to the island’s opportunistic deer. Vigilance was needed or rutabaga greens would disappear.
Just above the high-tide line, where his dragged boat sat, he re-tied the tarp around his outboard motor, and with a coffee can he kept for that purpose he bailed out his skiff. The repetitive sweep of the rusty can and the flare of the tossed water emptied him of conscious thoughts, and when he’d done the bailing to his satisfaction he let himself sit idle on the small boat’s middle bench and survey the cove he lived in, with its tamed water the color of gun-metal, and the more turbulent strait beyond.
The cove is what allowed Jeffrey to survive the way his mentor had survived, as a near hermit. Its muddy bottom gave him clams. Pots he set beyond the low-tide line rewarded him with Dungeness crabs the size of dinner plates. He didn’t have to go out much beyond the cove’s mouth to catch a salmon. His firewood came from the surrounding forest. For companions, he had ravens and seagulls and blue jays. The deer could be a nuisance, but the fence kept them from doing their worst damage. He had bear neighbors, too, and the violent storm the night before had made bear-like noises. Like bears also, it left rubble in its wake. He’d have to check his roof for missing shingles. His clam bucket might have been storm-swept down the beach. He told himself he’d look, but for the moment he sat still and stared across the water, the captive of a gentle satisfaction in which memories of Mildred came. He and she had never been boyfriend and girlfriend. They’d known each other in grade school. After the army released him and he’d been home for a few months, he’d mentioned to his mother that Mildred was a widow now.
“That Native girl?” his mother had said. She’d tightened her mouth, a signal to Jeffrey she meant to say no more. To him, she didn’t need to say more.
At the spring Craft Show in Boon’s Civic Center, Rex Stabler suffered a stroke and had to be rushed off for emergency care. Jeffrey had wheeled his friend to the center and helped him set up his miniature-furniture display, but he’d been absent on an errand of his own when Rex began defending Richard Nixon against a community college teacher who called the president a blight on the moral conscience of the nation.
Jeffery had walked in the rain to the spruce mill, about a mile away, to see if he could scrounge a scrap of board he could carve into a shoulder yoke. The yoke he’d had for years, the one he used to haul seaweed to his garden, had finally cracked and broken. The spruce mill kept faulty lumber in a pile near the shed that housed its big wheel of a saw, so all the time Jeffery searched he heard the saw’s screaming. He hated the noise, but he liked the spruce mill’s lumber smell. He found a board too warped to be of commercial use. The girl at the office counter said she’d let him have it for a buck. He carried it on his shoulder back to where he’d tied his skiff, in the small-boat harbor, right in front of the Civic Center. He tied the board across the gunwales of his skiff, and then climbed up the ramp to see if his friend was ready to be wheeled home. That’s when he learned about Rex’s stroke.
Jeffery’s contribution in that emergency was clean-up work. He boxed the doll-house furniture Rex had on display and carried it to his friend’s small apartment. He knew he’d find the key beneath the doormat. He was the one who had put it there. He let himself in, and after he had put the featherweight box of doll furniture on the messy kitchen table, he stood inhaling the paint-spray smell and pictured his friend, paint can in hand, hulking over his flattened beer-cans, spraying them a uniform white. White streaks marred the table where cracks in the pad of newsprint Rex laid down had let paint through. The paint, despite its obnoxious smell, made Jeffery love his friend more, because he could picture him flicking the streaks loose with his thumbnail and at the same time fuming about the disloyal thousands calling for the resignation of the president of the United States.
Two months passed before Jeffery could return to Boon and visit Rex, in the Pioneer Home, where he could finally receive visitors. Mildred, on the day he visited, had come calling on a neighbor similarly bed-ridden. She’d brought her grandson, and in the hallway, where she and Jeffery met, she said to the boy, “This is Mr. Burns, Cody. He grows the rutabagas.”
The child stared, as if he thought Jeffrey might grow a rutabaga then and there. Jeffery, recognizing the expectation and, feeling inadequate, replaced his plastic hat. He’d removed it as a sign of respect when he’d first caught sight of Mildred. He felt as awkward about having it on as he’d felt about not instantly growing a rutabaga, so he took it off again.
“You call him Cody?” he asked Mildred.
“My son-in-law named him.”
A sharp-eared listener might have caught a note of disapproval in Mildred’s tone.
“Same name as Buffalo Bill.”
As soon as Jeffery spoke he thought he may have trespassed on a sensitive matter. Buffalo Bill had slaughtered herds of bison. And on the plains, though not in Alaska, what did Native people have to eat except bison?
Mildred must have flashed on the same thought. “I bite my tongue around his father.” She spoke with just a hint of twinkle in her eye, but the twinkle was enough to make Jeffery smile.
“Bring Cody out to see my farm sometime.” Jeffery’s words came tumbling before the implications of his thought had registered enough to keep him from speaking. Blushing from his forwardness, he tried dispelling the invitation he had given by bowing toward the little boy and saying in a voice of artificial friendship, “You like rutabagas?”
Jeffrey spent two weeks shaping the warped board he’d brought home into the yoke he needed to haul seaweed from the beach. The board, two inches thick, was originally six inches wide. He had to plane the entire length down to four inches and then taper the arms of his creation until they were only two inches at the end. He padded the part that rested on his shoulders with batting made out of a worn blanket. He stuffed the batting into the leather sheath he’d removed from his old, broken yoke. The leather came from a bomber jacket he’d found at a Salvation Army shop. At the ends of the yoke’s arms, he carved notches for the straps of his seaweed buckets. To make those buckets, he had cut the tops off two five-gallon cans of gasoline—gas he’d bought for his Evinrude outboard.
On the first day he used his new yoke, during his third struggle up the beach, he paused and froze at the whine of an outboard motor powering a boat toward him across the frisky waves of Dempsey Cove. He guessed the boat was bringing Mildred. He had suffered through his whole two weeks of working on the yoke from the memory of making his rash invitation. Much of the time he’d spent sawing and planing, he replayed the Pioneer Home scene in his mind, altering what he had said, sometimes not making the invitation at all and other times mentally delivering it in such a cavalier and nonchalant way that a person would have to be a fool not to know it wasn’t meant sincerely.
Jeffery had made the invitation sincerely, though. He had said, “Come see my garden,” as if he had a garden worth showing to someone, and not just a lot of seaweed on a clearing in the woods where the vegetables that were his only crop grew underground, like roots.
And his house was not a place for entertaining. It was the kind of den a badger might crawl out of to go about its scrounging for the day.
Plus, he had a yoke across his shoulders, and he wore his rain-proof plastic hat.
His plastic hat was the one thing it didn’t occur to Jeffrey to worry about. Wearing it was too routine with him, like putting on his socks and shoes. His hat didn’t register with him as something a visitor might fault.
At first, Jeffery couldn’t tell for sure it was Mildred riding in the boat slapping its way across his choppy cove. He could see a man in the stern with his hand on the tiller and a female figure on the skiff’s middle bench. In the bow, safely wrapped in an orange life-jacket, a figure the size of an elf—surely a child; probably the grandson. The child braved the white spray like a little soldier stationed to keep guard.
The woman on the middle bench waved. Jeffrey had to set his seaweed buckets down and unburden himself from his yoke to wave back. He did it feeling like a prisoner enclosed by steel bars.
Mildred did not recognize the man on the beach as Jeffery until she saw the sun glint on his plastic hat. From further out in the cove, she’d been surprised to see what could have been a peasant in some arid country carrying water from an ancient well. The hat dispelled that notion. This was not an arid country, and these were not primitive times. She had not expected to encounter someone bowed beneath a yoke, and when Dorrin killed the engine to glide in toward the beach, she would very much have liked to tell him, “I’ve changed my mind. No visit.”
She had decided to make the visit because of the sun on Morning Mountain. On days when a north wind scattered the clouds, she stood with her coffee and watched the gilding of the distant peak. The mountain had a name in Tlingit her grandfather would have known. Often when Mildred was watching the first light of the sun flow down the mountain, she searched her mind for what that real name was. She knew, though, that even if she heard it she would have lost her skill at saying it correctly. She had been trained at Sheldon Jackson School in enunciation that did not offend the ears of whites.
“I’m the son-in-law Mildred hopes won’t embarrass her.” Dorrin introduced himself after Jeffery had helped him slide his boat up beyond any danger from the tide. Mildred, holding Cody by the hand, spoke a rejoinder. “If he says anything stupid I’ll take the boat and go straight back to town. I’ll leave him here for you.”
Her insult was affectionate. Even Jeffery could see that. At the joke, he felt himself relax. He said he was glad they’d come. He asked if he could offer them some tea. He nodded when Dorrin boomed that they had come to see the famous garden. The big blonde giant made monster claws out of his fingers and pounced toward his son, yelling, “Rutabagas. Rutabagas.” The little boy shrieked laughter and ran to leap into his father’s arms.
After that, it was easy to tour the fenced-in garden. It was easy for Jeffery to relate his anecdotes about the depredations of the deer. Dorrin tested the weight of the seaweed yoke, and after he had carried a load to the garden he said he’d hate to have to do that for a living. Mildred asked for instructions about spreading the kelp, and after Jeffery gave a demonstration everybody took a turn. Cody liked to dig his hands into the slimy seaweed. He doggedly continued spreading until he’d emptied both the cans.
Jeffery, though he worried about how messy his cabin was, made a formal offer of tea. Everyone trooped inside. Cody immediately wanted a glimpse into the stove’s glowing maw. His father helped him feed a chunk of wood into the flames, then the two of them made toast with Jeffery’s long-handled toasting cradle. Mildred spread the jam, and Jeffery poured the tea. A half an hour passed in pleasantries and teasing and light-heartedness. Outside again, squinting in the sun, Mildred said nice things about the visit while Dorrin chased his little boy across the beach, yelling, “Rutabagas,” as before.
The conversational fodder grew thin. Mildred’s gaze strayed up the densely forested hill behind Jeffrey’s cabin. She dug into her memory in search of the Tlingit name for Morning Mountain. Her concentration brought a frown. She had a feeling that if only she could hear the syllables the throaty way her grandfather had said them, her perspective would change. She would see dawn gilding the mountain’s peak. Rutabagas would be apples, and Jeffery would not wear a plastic hat.
That fantasy faded when Dorrin and Cody reversed the roles of who would be the chasing person and who would be the person being chased. Cody made his little fingers into claws and chased his father, shrieking, “Rutabagas.” Dorrin scampered just ahead of him, making squeals like the squeals of a child.
“He’s like a boy himself.” Jeffrey, to his own surprise, let that observation pop out unguarded. He did not, as a rule, voice opinions. So he had that reason, at least, to question the spontaneity he’d shown. But he had reason to regret it, too, because Mildred turned a questioning look on him. He didn’t know if he was being challenged and should offer an apology, or if his remark had been so original and pithy it came as a surprise and would eventually be praised. Mildred’s look was demanding without being specific. The mystery of what it meant swamped whatever levity Jeffrey had drawn on to make it. He imagined Mildred thinking, ‘What right have you to say someone’s a boy. You have never been a boy in your whole life. You look like someone born a little man who came into the world with a plastic rainhat on his head.’
The silence only lasted seconds. Silence couldn’t stand against the giddy hi-jinx on the beach. The silly shrillness drove away Jeffrey’s melancholy. It was a day of sunshine It was a day of guests. It was a day of unusual frolic.
Back in the boat, Mildred said thank you to Jeffery. Jeffery helped Dorrin push the skiff into the waves. Dorrin, when the boat was bobbing, deftly hopped aboard. He pulled the starter cord. The boat sped off toward open water. Cody turned to wave goodbye and was rewarded with the sight of the old man on the beach widely waving in reply.
Jeffrey stood watching the skiff grow smaller as it sped toward the horizon. After two minutes, the little boat was swallowed by the frieze of spruce and hemlocks on the far shore. He could no longer tell what was skiff and what was woods, but he continued to stare. A feeling of uselessness visited him. What if his island’s stingy soil, he wondered, allowed him to grow a more appealing crop than rutabagas? The thought did not accuse the crop he grew. It occurred to him as speculation about what might have been. What if I could grow green beans?
Instantly, a picture came to his mind of green beans in a brown teriyaki sauce. It was a picture he remembered seeing on display above the window of a street vendor’s cart. The memory was real, but that was all he knew. Where he had seen the pictured beans he couldn’t say. The beans themselves, when he’d begun to eat them from a paper plate, had cooled. Their sauce had thickened until it was a crust.
Why was he thinking this? The bright sun blazed. The blue water sparkled. The water bore its briny scent, and out of sight below its surface silver fish darted. He saw a cleaner world than the big-city’s teriyaki one. He should have been happier in the comparison. It was the artificiality of that misleading photograph that troubled him. It was the disappointment he had felt when what should have been a silky syrup crackled in his mouth and left fragments clinging to his teeth.
His life had a crust. That was the direction his thoughts took. A cooled crust that crackled when he chewed.
Jeffrey took off his plastic hat and held it in both hands. He twisted it to see all sides and turned it upside down to look inside. The sun on his bald head felt so new it was as if he’d never been bareheaded out of doors before, as if he had been born wearing a plastic hat the color of oatmeal.
He stepped closer to the water. Baby waves lapped at his boots. He gripped his hat by its brim and sailed it out into the cove. There it bobbed on waves that threatened to float it right back to his feet. But the vagaries of tide and current seized it. It drifted toward open water, and at last it disappeared.
Robert Kinerk‘s short story, ‘A Body Swinging Like the Clapper of a Bell,’ has been nominated by Fiction on the Web for Pushcart publication. That story, from a collection of Alaska stories, is one of seventeen accepted for posting or publication in the 12 months since last August. Robert Is thunderstruck.