Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Chapter Three: Island Hopping

Once Upon a Fjord was funded, in part, through a Kickstarter campaign. For sponsorship information, go to www.writingreeder.blogspot.com. (... oh wait, you're here already. Good job.)

©2012 by Marty Reeder

Chapter 3: Island Hopping

The box Alfred held was pretty non-descript. No characters or images adorned its smooth, ash surface. No bigger than a couple large, volume books stacked on top of each other, it weighed considerably less than two large books would. In fact, it felt as if it were empty.

That would be a horrible trick, the eleven-year-old boy thought to himself as he secured the rickety raft to the rocky shore of his island.

Yet somehow he knew, even with his innocent, pre-adolescent mind, that it was not a trick. Whatever the box held, it may not have been of physical substance, but for Alfred it supported all the weight of desperate hope. Of miraculous possibilities.

Still, he could not open it. Not yet. First, he had to go back home to see if … well, to see. So he scrambled over the black rocks where the seabirds roosted until he made it to the tough, yellow grass of a prairie sitting between the island home’s lone rock fixtures and the planed out shore.

Alfred instinctively found the black stream, which entered the sea just below where he tied off the raft, and followed its constant murmuring until he came upon the muffled reverence of the stand of pine trees sitting at the base of the one hundred-foot cliff face presiding over the island.

Had he looked back at any time during this short hike, Alfred would have seen the curious sight of several different seabirds distantly flopping up behind him, eyeing his progress with caution. But Alfred did not think to look back. Instead, his mind was lost on the events leading up to his recent visit with the Icelandic ship.

Ever since the landslide, three long days ago—the start of a new life that began ages ago it seemed—Alfred had gone to the northern shore of the island to look out to the town across the waters of Mangekilder Fjord. Every hour he spent there, he experienced the same sickening feeling as he processed the scar in the mountainside above the town. Yet, he felt drawn to it, as if to confirm that the nightmare really was true.

The opposite seemed to happen to his father. When they both went to investigate the crash in the fading light of the setting sun three days before, and when they both saw for the first time the horrifying change of landscape, his father let out a strangled cry of grief.

Alfred would never forget the sound of desperation, disbelief, and despair. He would also never forget the troubled look in his father’s eyes, which seemed betrayed by the vision they took in, frantically scanning the very spot his wife had last been, now buried under a hundred feet of merciless black rock and mud, with no small fishing boat traversing the wide open space between island and town. Immediately, Alfred’s father turned and raced back to the cottage, forgetting his son and shutting himself away from anything verifying the harsh reality of what just occurred.

Because of that moment, Alfred felt that opening the box should wait until he went home. As much as he hoped opening the box might reveal something to soften their grief, he hoped even more that opening the cottage door would find his father recovered, maybe not whole, but at least aware of Alfred and the world around him.

For Alfred, it was almost unbearable to go from the grief of the shore, gazing out over the haunting emptiness of Mangekilder, as it was to enter the cottage and see a more disturbing emptiness in his father’s eyes. All the while, his father mindlessly tended a small flame in the fireplace, staring blankly into its fathomless embers, alive only in his deep breathing.

As Alfred readjusted the grip of his hands on the smudged, yellow of the ash box, the cottage revealed itself from underneath a crowd of paternal pines just above a large, oval pond, which mirrored the black cliffs on its western bank. He paused, trying not to hope too much.

According to expectations, when the door to the cottage swiveled open, his father sat in front of the fireplace, jabbing a small log meaninglessly with the poker. The opening of the door caused his father’s head to twitch, though the eyes stayed on the fire, as he stated, “We’ll need some more firewood.” Then, almost too low for Alfred to hear, he followed up with, “Need to keep the house warm for your mother. She’ll be cold after the trip back across the fjord.”

Alfred had already dutifully refilled the wood box just before leaving earlier that day. He had already force-fed his father some bland fish as well. And he had already tried, too many times, to talk with his father about the reality of the landslide—a responsibility too great for an eleven-year-old—each time with a blank look from his father, staring into the fireplace. Responses, if any, inevitably called for more firewood, to keep the house warm for Alfred’s mother after the cold crossing.

Alfred sighed, a deep, lost sigh. He did not understand these events. He did not know what to do, how to shoulder this burden. He felt dwarfed before an impassable wall. Most of all he felt the drilling vacancy of his mother’s presence grinding through him in an ever-downward spiral.

He had never dealt with death in his short life; his youthful mind could not grasp the totality and scope of it now. But Alfred did know life, his mother had taught him that much. And he sensed that the experience he and his father shared for these last couple of days had no resemblance to life.

Even knowing this, however, Alfred felt stuck. Physically, that was obvious, since their fishing boat had been lost with Alfred’s mother and they lived on an island with no other boat than a shoddy raft Alfred built for play when younger. More than that, though, Alfred felt they were stuck with static memories. Incased by the moments after the ominous sound roared through the fjord three days ago.

Somehow, he needed to escape the sight and memory of the landslide, blaringly visible from the island home; yet to escape would require the impossible: abandoning his father in his catatonic state, leaving the only home he knew, the home that held the good memories of his mother.

For that reason the approach of the Icelandic boat that afternoon seemed so providential. A reprieve. The ship could get Alfred and his father passage off the island, at least temporarily, and the ship might bring news from the town. Miraculous news, even, his naïve, eleven-year-old mind had considered.

He remembered freeing up his old raft and paddling to the ship, which appeared to be doing some repairs. The crew brought him on board, and he found a man who spoke Norwegian. With fearful hope, he asked about survivors from the landslide; with subdued desperation, he asked about his mother.

The Icelandic sailor shook his head, his eyes pained to deliver the tragic news, which, however great, was nothing to the pain that Alfred simultaneously felt and could not understand. Then a hand rested firmly on his shoulder, and Alfred saw other eyes, eyes that reflected, it seemed, the infinite sky, the blueness in them like the blueness that deepens into the farthest corners of the sky just before approaching twilight. And Alfred knew that, whatever else happened, he could retreat into those eyes and find refuge.

The man that belonged to the eyes, an old man with a slow gait, led Alfred below decks, past some cramped storage areas, and then into a small partition. The man lit a lantern and showed himself standing before a large chest, sitting in front of a wall of hanging nets.

Without looking at Alfred, the man carefully opened the chest and knowingly rearranged its contents, uncovering a predestined item. Strange though it seemed to Alfred, he could not actually see anything in the chest. The man’s hands grabbed at and seemingly relocated material, but Alfred saw nothing except the calloused hands and a shimmering in the chest that might have been the flickering lantern light.

Then, the hands gripped something of substance. They exited the chest, and Alfred saw the ash box. Curious, Alfred gazed at the simple object, wondering how something as plain as this held the promise to repair a broken heart—for why else would the man with the heavenly eyes have brought him down here?

With childlike innocence, however, Alfred solemnly accepted the gift. Thank you, Alfred thought.

The box will not fix or replace your loss, gentle youth. But with it you can preserve your family heritage, while still advancing towards the future your mother hoped for your family someday. The thought came from the man’s eyes, it seemed, and it filled Alfred with the kind of love he felt when his family had been whole. Take the box to the quarterdeck of your home—a place is prepared for it.

Although reluctant to leave the man with the infinite eyes, Alfred also felt eager to move forward, finally having a purpose and an object of hope. That hope he had upon leaving the Icelandic ship seemed so distant to Alfred now sitting in his family’s dark cottage, lit only by the quiet red of a constantly dying fire. Desperate to revive hope, Alfred decided it was time to open the box.

His hand gripped the edge of the lid, joined to the box by unseen hinges, then he drew it open and looked down after the lid admitted enough light from the hearth. Alfred’s heart immediately sank. The box gaped back at him, empty.

How could this be? Alfred anguished. Why would the man with hope send me a box with nothing? But Alfred’s eleven-year-old mind refused to despair. Not having yet arrived at the skeptical age of adults, he took a deep breath and thought.

The quarterdeck of the home. The man with hope told me to take it to the quarterdeck of my home. A quarterdeck usually belonged to a ship, the place people steered, but applying it to his house did not give him a lot of options. The size of his house probably matched or even was smaller than most quarterdecks on the back of any ship, plus there was nothing in his home that resembled anything like a real quarterdeck. If not here, then where would the quarterdeck be? Then Alfred felt the sturdy ground beneath his feet, beneath the floor of the cabin. This island is my home.

Alfred breathed in sharply. How often, while fishing with his father or traveling to town with his mother, had he gazed back at the island and thought of it shaped like a ship. The plains spreading out from the center of the island like the wide deck of an enormous ocean-going vessel, the eastern tip pointed and slightly raised like a razor bow. The western shore of the island, a blunt point, resembled the clipped curvature of a boat’s stern. The clustered pines and oval pond served as the cargo-filled center of the imaginary ship. Then the jutting rocks, set off center towards the west, the stern of the island, appearing as the raised helm … the quarterdeck!

Immediately, Alfred cradled the box and rushed out the door, leaving his father in his statue position before the hearth. He suddenly became confused by a dozen or so seabirds perched on the low tree branches and rocks surrounding the entrance of the house. They seemed expectant, calm as they observed him move, confused, away from the door.

Cautiously, Alfred paced forward, his enthusiasm for finding the quarterdeck overcoming this strange gathering of birds, who he never saw leave the rocky shores of the island. The birds, however, simply watched him pass before hopping off their perches and marching awkwardly, at a respectful distance, behind him.

With an eye backwards, Alfred hiked along the familiar trail that he often traversed through the pines, up a rock slide, and then climbing along the steep incline of the back side of the cliffs. He gradually rose to the tips of the trees behind him and then finally broke above them, surfacing through a sea of dark green. During the fifteen-minute trek, the seabirds of various sizes scurried and flopped up the rocks after him. The pathway towards the top required Alfred to tuck the box snuggly between his arm and side, while he used one hand to grasp familiar rock handles and scramble up primitive boulder steps to the slim ridge at the cliff’s crest.

Instinctively knowing where to go, Alfred strode along the uneven rock platforms forming the short ridge towering over the island. Behind him he heard the scraping and shuffling of his odd, feathered entourage as he worked towards the center, and highest, shelf of the summit. Once he ascended this pulpit, he soaked in the setting, one he and his family had often come to experience.

From this vantage point on the island, it was possible to see everywhere. Looking down, he saw the sad, slender trail of smoke from his cabin’s chimney, seeking its way through the knit branches of the pine trees. He saw the pond at the base of the cliffs, a hole in the grove of trees, and now a brilliant blue with the full force of the sun’s rays angling down into it. The deep green and black of the trees ended abruptly and gave way to the tough yellow grass of the rest of the island, which was only broken by some raised terrain near the bow, dotted with boulders. The whole was island outlined by the black, rocky shore.

Then, as if to humble any who might feel on top of the world, Alfred only needed to look beyond the island and see the Mangekilder Fjord cliffs shooting into the sky just beyond the island. He knew that if his gaze took him north, he would see the northern borders of the fjord. But that would also show him the devastated town and the landslide remnants, so he avoided it. Even avoiding it, though, made him think on it, and he remembered what he came for.

Alfred adjusted his vision so that it descended from the lofty cliffs and landed on the shelf upon which he stood. The rock that seemed so solidly black from a distance, close up, showed a scattered array of gray, white lichen, an occasional tuft of stunted grass. Topping all this lay loose rocks and rough pebbles, victims of the exposed rim of the cliff peak. And then, just at the edge of the cliff edge in front of him, roots gripping as if for dear life, sat Alfred’s objective.

A gnarled, aged tree stump, rising to Alfred’s chest before breaking off in jagged, layered points, indicated the former majesty of a kingly tree. Alfred’s father knew it from his youth, before its crown was unceremoniously removed from a vengeful lightening strike. How the tree had even managed to slip its tendril roots into the hard cliff edge, where no other trees had succeeded, demonstrated its tenacity. Even now, the stump held a stubborn look of resistance and pride, in spite of—or maybe because of—the broken-off branch stubs and burrowing fissures in its skin.

Alfred had come up here often, had often scrutinized the stump and surrounding shelf. But he never saw it as he now did, seeing what had, impossibly, been there all along. Near the top of the stump, a square-like indentation bore into one of the stump’s layered shelves. In wonder, Alfred realized that the shape of the recess seemed to match perfectly the box he held in his hands.

No curious eleven-year-old could have been held back at that point. Alfred stepped forward, reverently balanced the box in front of him, then slipped it into the open hole of the stump. As if made for that very purpose, the box slipped into the nook until level with the shelf around it. Alfred then raised the lid until it rested, perfectly, into a step of the stump behind it.

Without question, the fitting of the box to the stump smacked of the miraculous. Yet still, Alfred could not see anything inside the box. He stepped back, thinking through his instructions.

While sorting things in his mind, Alfred startled when a rough flapping of wings approached. A huge specimen of white feathers, with grey wings, rose up to the shelf Alfred stood on and then attempted to land on the stump, just above the box. The attempt turned out a near failure, with feet scrambling to locate a landing and then ungracefully bracing the rest of the body on the very edge of the tree remnant. Recovering from the dismal landing and finding its balance, the bird raised itself erect.

Once the bird revealed its full proportions, it became clear it was a monster. He looked like a kittiwake, a type of seagull that frequented the island, but in body size he resembled more of a large goose. This particular bird, stomping restlessly on top of the stump and feinting his wings up and down, as if trying to settle them into its body unsuccessfully, looked almost menacing. Its beak seemed blunted and blocky, with a downward-hooked tip. Its white body feathers were speckled with gray, almost like the encroaching gray hair on a grumpy old man. The bird’s head cocked to one side as it tried to stare down Alfred, as if Alfred kept leaning too much to one side and the large bird needed to compensate.

Every now and then, the powerful seabird would turn to adjust a stray, disobedient feather, and Alfred suddenly understood the awkward looks. The eye on the left side of the bird’s head had been mangled at some point, perhaps in a scuffle with another bird, or—considering its recent second-rate arrival at the stump—maybe a failed landing. The scars sealed up any practical use of the eye. Still, when the good eye came around to inspect Alfred, he could not help but think that inside of it lay a demand, or at least an expectation, of something from him.

“I don’t know what you want,” said Alfred cautiously to the bird.

A low squawk rumbled in the belly of the bird.

“I brought the box to the quarterdeck,” Alfred followed, feeling that the box somehow tied in to the bird’s presence.

The bird replied by lifting its wings again and settling them back next to its body, impatiently.

“There’s nothing in the box, see?” Alfred spoke, wondering what drove him to justifying himself to an animal. “But I’m pretty sure it’s meant for that hole in the stump.”

The bird’s head angled again and the good eye held fast to Alfred.

“If this were a real ship, then I guess the next move be to make the ship ready to sail, but—.”

With this last phrase of “make the ship ready to sail” the large bird interrupted, crying out with a sharp, ugly squawk. Alfred immediately became enveloped by the beating sound of flapping wings and chattering. Within a matter of moments, he found himself joined on the quarterdeck by a couple dozen seabirds.

With military sharpness, the birds formed two lines facing each other along the shelf between where Alfred stood and the stump with the large bird. In the front lines on both sides stood six puffin birds standing at about knee height to Alfred, their colorful, triangular beaks pointing to each other, their black body feathers shining, and the white feathers in a broad, circular sweep around their eyes glowing with pride.

Behind the first line, crouched and small compared to the puffin birds, perched the arctic terns. These eight sleek birds, four on either side, gazed up at Alfred intelligently, respectfully, though not nearly as formally as the puffins in front of them. Their heads seemed like black helmets topping the silky white feathers dressing the rest of their bodies, which reached down to their forked tails, sloping to sharp pointed ends.

Then scrummed up behind the arctic terns, jostled two sets of five kittiwakes, generally white feathered bodies with grey wings, though with some variance of black tipped wings and heads. The kittiwakes murmured and shuffled restlessly, much to the apparent dismay of the puffins, who stood statue still, with uneasy glances back at the kittiwakes.

All the birds seemed to be waiting for something from Alfred, still figuring out the peculiar scene in front of him. The large bird gave a gruff, if not encouraging, squawk.

Bewildered, but hoping to appease the fowl in front of him, Alfred said uncertainly, “Um … next, I would give the order to raise anchor, but because this is an island—”

The large bird let out a brief shriek and immediately the puffins jumped around and started screeching at the hapless kittiwakes. Four of the kittiwakes took flight, landing on the stump at the opposite side of the large bird. One of them dipped its beak into the box, seemed to grab at something, then tugged its head out. The kittiwake sitting behind the first reached out to the approaching beak and grabbed at thin air, tugging backwards, as if hefting a large, heavy object. The third and fourth kittiwakes followed suit, until all four were reaching and tugging at some imaginary counterweight.

Eyeing them with aloof interest, the large bird eventually seemed satisfied, called out, and the puffins boldly flew three of the kittiwakes into a retreat with the others on the shelf. The fourth circled his head in a wrapping motion around a stunted branch of the stump and then joined the others.

Alfred witnessed the whole thing with curious hesitation, part of him suspicious as to how much of this had to do with the old man and the box or whether these birds suffered from confusion, or whether the events from the last couple of days had caused hallucinations for Alfred.

After another long moment of thinking, Alfred came to the conclusion that, either way, he found himself on the quarterdeck. He was, apparently, the captain, and these birds his crew. Alfred shrugged.

“Raise sails?”

In a moment, after an enthusiastic, approving crackle from the large bird, the puffins had the whole crew in an uproar. Kittiwakes hounded the stump, beaks dipping strategically and handing off unseen somethings to other kittiwakes waiting at their sides. These leaped into the air, flapping upwards slowly, with heads dipping low, as if greatly burdened. Sometimes other kittiwakes would join next to them and help ease the apparent load.

Once the groups of kittiwakes had ascended one hundred, two hundred, maybe even three hundred feet in the air, Alfred finally saw the acrobatic arctic terns enter the scene. Darting from one loaded kittiwake to another, they snatched at the air and then backtracked, skillfully unfolding themselves outwards, away from each other in immense, expanding squares.

It was at this point that Alfred first saw, or thought he saw, something among the soaring seabirds. In the right angle of sunlight, he seemed to catch a glint of enormous waving sheets. If he did not know to look closely, he would have confused it only with a shimmering of sunlight, but watching the birds handle and counterbalance against an apparent physical object forced him to scrutinize every space between box and birds. The examination did not prove fruitless.

By following the slight glistening of wind-swept fabric hundreds of feet in the air, Alfred could track the gleaming of nearly invisible cords traveling all the way down until a wide clump of them entered into the simple ash box on the stump in front of him. In awe, his eyes journeyed back to the sky and watched, carefully, to see the large swaths of thinly outlined sails fill with the brisk fjord wind, come taught, and turn into wide squares with bulging centers.

Dancing beautifully in the air among the majestic, silent sails, the arctic terns flitted back and forth, from corner to corner of at least a dozen sails that seemed to stretch to lengths of almost a quarter the size of the island itself. At the same time, below, the large bird regarded the scene with his one good eye, squawking occasionally to the puffins, who in return, scrambled, half flying-half screeching to kittiwakes and terns, dispensing apparent orders. The results of these led to adjustments to either the height of a sail, handled by kittiwakes at the box, bobbing heads as they raised or lowered the elusive cords; or the placement of the sail, handled by adroit terns in the sky.

So entranced was Alfred with the ceremony of the seabirds, that he almost did not notice the queasy sensation that overtook his stomach. Coupled with the buckling of his knees, his attention focused back down to the island beneath his feet, and Alfred witnessed, shocked, the island elevating beyond the level of the sea, rising up in the air—one hundred acres of hardy Scandinavian land—and inching forward above the fjord waters as winds coaxed the sails forward and beyond the quarterdeck.

The raging, but distant, whoosh of water below told Alfred that the sea began to fill the vacancy the island was leaving. The tug of the land not yet free of the water also told him that a significant portion of the island below the surface accompanied them on this maiden flight.

Exhilarated, Alfred’s feet adjusted to the phenomenon of the raising mass of land, and he felt as he had never felt before. Excitement surged through him to the point where he was shouting exultantly. I must grab Father and Mother! he thought, they must see this!

And then he faltered. Not Mother. His excitement tempered. Maybe Father … though even that seemed unlikely. Before he could turn to the trail down to the cabin, he recognized that while the island gained momentum forwards and upwards, it put itself on track straight for the cliffs a half mile in front of him.

That won’t do, he thought. “Turn to the port,” he commanded the large bird.

The bird shuffled awkwardly, eyeing him, but making no call to the puffins.

“Turn left!” Alfred said, more desperately. The island did not move quickly at that point, in fact, it still had not released itself entirely from the sea below. But the fact that it was an object in motion and Alfred did not know how to stop it created a sense of urgency.

The bird cocked its head to the side.

How do ships turn? he thought, containing his panic. A helm, a wheel or tiller. There is nothing like that here. Alfred looked around, hoping for something else to appear, but nothing did.

By now the bird fidgeted, its good eye having swerved around and noticed the slowly approaching cliff face. It turned back to Alfred.

If only he had the time to think, Alfred felt he could figure out the riddle, but everything seemed to be happening all at once. Only minutes before, Alfred stood safely grounded to an immovable, anchored island, and now he had the charge of a hundred acre battering ram. I would’ve been more careful, he thought, I would’ve waited and thought things through …

Suddenly, it dawned on Alfred. So I should make the island immovable again!

The cliffs loomed closer and the island gained enough momentum that the final tip of land underneath had finally cleared the water below. Each second compounded towards less time, but Alfred’s moment of panic had passed.

With purpose, he caught the good eye of the bird on the stump and declared: “Lower the sails! Anchor the island!”

Relieved, it seemed, for the decision, the large bird bellowed out some convincing commands and the puffins set a flurry of action. Arctic terns swooped to gather in fields of sails, kittiwakes tugged on gleaming lines, stuffing yard after yard in the apparently limitless box. One kittiwake reversed the wrapping motion around the stunted branch and then others helped to ease the taught cord back into the box.

Before the island’s rocky underneath could even finish dripping the last of the seawater, it settled back into the fjord. Had Alfred not personally witnessed the island’s rise and descent, and had it not been a quarter mile closer to the cliff walls directly to the east, he never would have known that anything happened in the last couple of minutes at all.

For a moment, Alfred processed what just happened. Then he closed the lid, and the birds immediately shuffled off the quarterdeck onto the ridgeline below. Leaving the box in the stump, because he could think of no better place for it, Alfred hiked past the birds—who this time did not follow him, though they stood respectfully at attention while he passed—and scrambled down to his cabin below.

He made dinner out of the last of their food, thinking that he would need to go fishing soon to replenish their stock … such a commonplace thought, Alfred realized surreally, especially after he had just witnessed, and directed, the rising of a whole island out of the sea.

That night he sat next to the fire with his father. Once or twice he tried to explain the occurrences of the day, but it came as no surprise when his father would either ignore him or make a call for more firewood. This left Alfred to ponder the riddle of the helm on his own, while the two of them stared into the flickering light before them. Where could I find a wheel? How would I attach it? If it came to something as simple as the wheel from a ship’s helm, Alfred thought of a possible answer. A second longer and he reasoned that he might even know how to attach it.

Still, though, Alfred realized that maybe he was taking too much time thinking about how to steer the island. What good would a steering mechanism be when he did not even know where to steer the island to? That was Alfred’s real problem. He knew that he wanted to leave the memories of Mangekilder Fjord and keep their island home, but where would he go? Was he to simply run away? That did not seem like the noble thing to do with a miraculous object. It seemed like there should be a purpose.

Alfred thought back on the words of the old man. The man mentioned how the box could help preserve Alfred’s family heritage. Taking the island with him wherever he went, Alfred felt, accomplished just that.

Then the man said something about going to a future that Alfred’s mother hoped for the family someday. Not realizing it at the time, Alfred now thought that a strange thing to say. What else would Mother want for us than to simply be happy here on our island? Sure, the fishing seemed to be getting worse and worse each season, but Alfred’s eleven-year-old mind did not sense a pattern with the decline. Sure, there were new fishing industries, who—with their larger ships and new factories—seemed to be undercutting business. But Alfred just considered these things the routine complaints of adults, and they did not affect his youthful lifestyle.

Rethinking these things, though, forced the young eleven-year-old to adopt a more mature line of thought. What if the problems were real? What if Mother really hoped to fix these problems?

The more he thought about it, though, the more Alfred felt that his father would never consider leaving the island that had been in his family for generations, their family heritage. Any solution Mother thought of would have to mean we still stayed on the island.

How stuck Mother must have felt, Alfred considered. His mom and dad loved each other deeply, of that Alfred had no question. So, he reasoned, Mother would have respected Father’s family heritage, but also wanted to get our family, get me, away from a position with no future. Now Alfred knew he was not the only person who felt stuck. In fact, he felt ashamed he had not realized it sooner.

With these realizations, Alfred at least did not feel the despair his mother must have experienced, and hid, on certain occasions. He had the box. There was a way to maintain both, as the old man said.

This, Alfred felt, this is my way of respecting the heritage of my mother, his eyes watered, and he gulped hard, and of my father … since both, he gave a meaning look to his now dozing father, both have been lost. If he could find a way to restore his mother’s hopes, then it might still restore his father. But what did his mother hope for the family?

Alfred went to bed without an answer, cozying underneath his mother’s handmade quilt in the corner of the room on his small, unsteady bed. He could have, he knew, slept in the bed in his parent’s tiny bedroom, since his father only left his chair to go to the outhouse and back. But something about using their empty bed did not feel right, so he drifted off to sleep with the cares of an adult lacing themselves through his subconscious.

Just as dawn approached, Alfred dreamt of his mother sharing soothing stories with him, as she often did. Stories of mischievous elves, horrible giants, magical Finnish sailors, and … Alfred woke up abruptly. That’s it, he thought, I know where to go, where she wanted to go! He went to his parent’s bedroom and rummaged through the several containers under the bed until he found what he was looking for.

Later that day Alfred took his small raft and paddled it over to the shoals next to the cliff face to the east of the island. The raft fought against the strong currents in the fjord, but fortunately, the island sat much closer to the shoals this day than it did the day before. Once at the shoals, he navigated the tricky maze of rocks and flowing water until he came across the wreckage of a large fishing boat, one of the newer ones commissioned by a fishing company.

Alfred remembered his family’s surprise when Snorre, Mangekilder’s local drunk, received the boat in return for working for the company, based out of a foreign business. Alfred’s father mentioned something about how they might as well have offered it to an otter. Alfred’s mother chided him softly—Alfred never heard her say a bad thing about anyone, but least of all Snorre, though it was clear she abhorred his habits.

It surprised no one much when, only weeks later, the boat crashed on the shoals, and was deemed unsalvageable. If Snorre’s drinking had been bad before, it certainly did not improve after that incident. Alfred remembered Henry, back at the town, laughing and saying that there was no good fishing anywhere near the shoals. Henry said that Snorre must have been really slogged to think to take his nice new ship over there.

Well, Alfred thought, my mother told me that Snorre was to be pitied. But that doesn’t mean I can’t gain from his mistake. Alfred tied the raft to a part of the ship remaining above water, then spent most of the afternoon working on releasing the beautiful, barely-used wheel of the ship, sitting listlessly in the stern.

The way home also delayed him since he took time to catch fish. By the time he reached the shore of his island, the sun dropped low on the horizon. Alfred grunted while arranging the heavy wheel on his back, one whose height nearly reached his chest from the ground.

With the wheel placed, he now steadied himself and grabbed his bucket of fish. Before turning to the path towards his cabin, he saw with interest a steamship anchored by the Mangekilder town, but with more important things at hand, he thought no more of it and stumbled up the path.

After a quick meal for his father and himself, Alfred stuffed four envelopes from his mother’s room in his pocket and shouldered the wheel once more, heading up the path to the cliffs. The going was slow, especially coming up the steep section towards the end, but with enough shuffling and short breaks, Alfred finally crested the ridge.

Immediately, almost comically, the puffin birds screeched out and flew around jabbing and poking at kittiwakes, who half-heartedly came to attention. The arctic terns effectively lined up on their own, watching the proceedings with interest. The birds, Alfred noted wryly, had not expected him in their quarters. Pieces of fish bones and feathers were scattered everywhere, but Alfred only grinned and moved past the stock-still crew. The large bird was no where to be seen.

Alfred ascended the final pulpit of rock and looked upon the familiar stump and box. He eyed the stump curiously, almost expectantly, and then, swinging the wheel from around his back approached a hole, buried in a fissure of the stump, just below Alfred’s waist. The hole at one time must have been the home to squirrels or birds. Now, thought Alfred, it will be home to yet another thing.

Jutting from the middle of one side of the wheel, a wooden stave poked forward. In removing it from the shipwreck, Alfred snapped the stave a few feet from the wheel. Now, he took the remnants of the stave and aimed it for the hole in the stump. Much the same as the box, the wheel seemed made for that particular hole, sliding straight in as snug as a bird in its nest.

Alfred tested it. The polished spokes of the wheel gleamed as it spun perfectly one way and then the other. The handles felt comfortable in his hands, like they were made for him. It seemed strange for Alfred to be so sure about something so remote from any experience he ever had, but the fitting of the wheel inspired all the confidence that his reckless flight had dashed only a day ago.

Though the sun lowered more and more, Alfred could no longer wait. The evening breezes should get him out of the fjord if he left now, and with a destination in mind, he felt he must act immediately.

His hand reached out and lifted the box lid open. From some unseen location, the large bird swooped and crashed indelicately onto the stump. It took a moment to recuperate its body—and dignity, perhaps—then it reared tall on the stump, prepared. The scarred eye turned away and the good eye lay on Alfred expectantly.

Alfred smiled. “Make ready to sail!”

The bird gave a satisfied squawk, and the quarterdeck filled with the crew in their normal position. One order followed another and, in beautiful succession, the island was underneath the soft gleaming roof of sails. Once again, it rocked, once again it rose, and Alfred saw the cliffs looming ever closer. This time I’m ready, he thought. I hope.

Once the island had a bit of headway, Alfred gripped the rungs of the wheel. He paused for a moment, ensuring the island had left the grasp of the water below, then he gave the wheel a hard spin to port, a northeast direction. In return, not only did the bow of the island swerve to the left, but the whole island tilted, if only slightly, at a leftward angle.

The movement caused some fluttering, like beating of a distant flock of thousands of birds, and Alfred realized that it was the result of the change in angle causing the sails to lose wind and flap as a result; although its soft, removed flapping resembled nothing like the belligerent, near slapping of the sails in his family’s fishing boat.

The large bird also recognized the change and squawked orders, which the puffins then carried through to the terns. Skillfully, the sails adjusted position and filled again, and they found themselves skirting alongside the cliffs, maintaining their distance of a quarter mile, rising as they flew. The setting sun cast the island’s traveling shadow across the cliff face, and with interest Alfred noted that the island carried most of its mass below the surface, a huge wedge of rock acting as a tremendous keel. He could hardly believe that he managed such a magnificent, moving behemoth by a simple wheel in the hole of a stump in front of him.

A couple more turns would take him west and over the town, which vaguely tempted him, maybe just to see what the steamship did there, but instead, Alfred maintained their direction in hopes of clearing the cliffs before making any more adjustments.

After fifteen minutes of sailing, the island finally peaked the dominating cliffs of Mangekilder Fjord. With only a little remorse did Alfred leave it behind. His home was still with him, and his excitement for what lay ahead drowned out any other regrets he might have had.

He fished into his pocket and pulled out the envelopes he found in containers under his mother’s bed. Envelopes filled with descriptions of a place that mother would often tell Alfred about, a place of his mother’s dream, what must have been her dream for her family. Alfred gripped the letters from his mother’s cousin.

Now that he made room for himself by clearing the cliffs, Alfred decided that it was time to turn towards his destination, his mother’s dream, to turn west—to America.

In the melee that followed the island’s slow coming about, Alfred’s exhilaration with the island’s progress and the crew’s proceedings distracted him enough that he did not make out, on the twilight-deepening western horizon, mounds and mounds of dark, menacing storm clouds.

©2012 by Marty Reeder

Once Upon a Fjord was funded, in part, through a Kickstarter campaign. For sponsorship information, go to www.writingreeder.blogspot.com.