CHARLIE JOHNS KNEW it was going to be a strange year when he found a three-headed dandelion blooming in mid-October. Charlie sat drinking his coffee in front of the picture window at his home on Petroglyph Beach. His dog, Ossa, an old Australian shepherd, sat beside him. Charlie was Wooshkeetaan, Eagle, from the Shark House. He is called Aan gux — the keeper or backbone of the land. His mother was from Hoonah but he’d lived in Wrangell all his life. His father was Kaawdliyaayí Hit: House Lowered from the Sky. Here, Charlie lived among people from the Sun House and the Dogfish Intestine House as well as the Norwegians, the Finns, the Sáami, the Filipinos, and even the Chinese and Japanese. There were Vikings, wizards, bears, siyokoy, dragons, and Susanoo.
The best thing, though, about living in Wrangell was living among stories. He practically lived at the coffee shop. Their stories lived there, and at the gas pump, and the work float, and at Shakes Island, and among the petroglyphs beside his house. Since Jesse, his wife of many years, had died, he began to spend his time among rocks, wandering with his thermos of coffee along the beach. He knew exactly where the Raven stealing the sun story was carved as well as the spiral and the killer whale. But he worried lately about the beach and the erosion happening all along Alaska’s coastline.
The previous winter, an ice floe broke loose from the Stikine in March. Early break up, they called it. He didn’t believe it. But, the large sheet of ice came round the corner, then along the shoreline, and smashed into his beach. The tides were higher these past few years and the storms stronger. In fact, the sea had eroded the shore so many times that he had to move his house back two times in the last twenty years. It wasn’t just Wrangell, though. It was Shishmaref, Sitka, Tenakee, Newtok, villages on the Ninglick River, and more.
Now Charlie sat down in the wet sand, tucking his raincoat under his butt. He held his thermos in his gloved hands and took a big sip of coffee. The gulls circled overhead, which made him feel comforted, since Jesse had been a seagull. She was T'akdeintaan. Some people called her a kittiwake, but she was old school and claimed she was a seagull. He looked up and screeched back at them.
Every morning since Jesse's death, he’d made a point to check up on the rocks.
Someone had to. Someone had to take care of them. Jesse who used to clean up the beach. She’d pick up Pepsi cans and white plastic grocery bags. Now it was his turn, he supposed, a sad turn. But he’d take it. He’d take anything that would still connect him to Jesse. He’d started by just trying to sit among the rocks but he couldn’t ignore the garbage. Once he’d found remnants of a small fire and a pile of beer bottles. Another time, a roll of butcher paper that people used to make rubbings of the petroglyphs, lying wet and soggy on the beach. He found orange letters sprayed across a petroglyph and it wasn't even something profound: the numbers “1995.” That really pissed him off.
These were his people’s petroglyphs. At least that’s how he thought of them. He often had words with the tour guides and the town fathers when they’d claim they didn’t know who carved the petroglyphs. They were his ancestors. He knew this. It was as if the white folks were saying that the land around here really wasn’t Tlingit territory because they weren’t here first. You migrated here and so did we.
Sometimes he had to stop the tourists from defacing the petroglyphs. At first, he simply stood on the porch with his rifle in his hand. That's when the cops got involved and told him not to scare the visitors — they don’t call them tourists anymore. The government had made the beach a state historic site and all that did was bring more people there. Some protection.
Vivian Faith Prescott is fifth-generation Alaskan, born and raised in Wrangell, Alaska. She lives in Sitka, Alaska, and part-time at her family’s fish camp in Wrangell. She’s married to US Coast Guardsman and poet Howie Martindale, and together they have six children, seventeen grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. Vivian is of Sáami, Irish, Suomalainen, and Norwegian descent (among others). Her children are Raven of the T’akdeintaan clan/Snail House (Tlingit). She has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Cross Cultural Studies from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She also has a M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Vivian’s short stories, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies such as Cold Flashes: Literary Snapshots of Alaska, Cirque, Altered States, and Tidal Echoes.
“House Falling into the Sea” is a fictional story appearing in the forthcoming linked collection The Dead Go to Seattle (Boreal Books). The story depicts an Elder’s struggle to come to terms with loss and change. The stories in The Dead Go to Seattle connect through generations of families living in Wrangell, Alaska, prior to and in the midst of worldwide catastrophe: global warming creating havoc with the island’s inhabitants. To read more of the excerpt, download a free copy of the Alaska Sampler 2015.
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