Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Alaska Shorts: Eliza Waite by by Ashley E. Sweeney

Eliza marks each step on the forward deck. She finds herself a spot at the port rail, and stares back over the smoky city of Seattle. Eliza licks her chapped lips and tastes salt. She balls her fists to keep warm and stamps her feet on the planked deck. She blends into the crowd and observes her fellow passengers, who clang clang clang up the gangway of the SS Ketchikan in droves.
The dapper men wear sack coats with matching waistcoats and trousers, and knee-length overcoats, trimmed with finest fur. The more fashionable among the men wear their hair short and sport pointed beards with no moustache, and top hats. Few top hats line the railings, however, as the majority of men on board wear the trappings of a woodsman, and carry their belongings close: picks, shovels, saws, rifles, and mining pans hanging hurdy-gurdy from their backs.
The society women wear heavily corseted traveling gowns, with the new leg o’mutton sleeves that balloon down to a tight wristlet. These stylish voyagers seem out of place, especially with their outlandish hats, some with ostrich feathers or dulled eyes of fox. The sporting women, on the other hand, wear tailored menswear, with high-collared blouses and skirts above the ankle, and expose the lower half of the leg above buttoned boots. Some of these daring women do not wear hats at all. Eliza’s severe bun and absurd outfit mark her as some other type of woman, amorphous and indistinguishable, perhaps a miner herself.
The Ketchikan plows up the Inside Passage from Seattle to Alaska, and passes layers of islandssilhouettes of ghost-like islands receding into dense mist. The vessel overnights at Nanaimo, and takes on additional passengers at Port Hardy. Eliza wonders how another human soul can fit on the already overcrowded steamer.
She wonders if she will ever be warm again.
One day I will wear a fur coat, and fur boots, and fur-lined mitts. Perhaps the fur will be the common fox, or perhaps the smoothest mink. But tonight I would wear the fur of a great brown bear if it would keep out this chill.
Eliza shivers on the top deck. She moves to the starboard rail, away from the wind. She stamps her feet to keep blood flowing. More than once she sees a pod of orca whales rising out of the sea; their black fins knife through the straits andif she catches a rare glimpseflashes of black and white appear in the creases between waves.
By the time the ship reaches Prince Rupert, cold climbs through Eliza’s sparse clothing and nags at her very bones. She curls her hands into tight circles inside her new gloves and breathes shallowly. Deep breaths hurt her lungs. She develops a cough.
She has yet to speak to anyone on the voyage.
“Bad advice is seldom forgotten!” a booming voice resounds. “Just remember that a fool and his money are soon parted. And there be many fools on this journey.
A lanky Scot approaches Eliza from the far rail.
“Name’s Richardson, Donald Martin Richardson, that is. People call me Shorty. And you’d be?”
“Mrs. Waite.”
No other explanation.
“I’m one of the lucky ones in this crowd of fools.”
“And what do you mean, sir?”
 “Heard of Rabbit Creek? They call it Bonanza now. Hit the mother lode there last summer. Up by Dawson. Yukon Territory.
“Now, you’ll pardon me. I’ve got a few nickels to earn. Some men get rich from the digging; others get rich off the diggers.”
Shorty addresses a group of men nearby.
“So here’s what you’ll need, boys. Every Klondiker heading over the pass needs a ton of supplies.
“You’ll need heavy woolens, flannels, buck mitts, and moccasins. Blanket rolls and mackinaws. Mosquito netting and camphor. Add to this: navy beans, bacon, rolled oats, and flour. Coffee, tea, condensed milk, and vinegar. Potatoes. Onions. Mustard and pepper. It’s not for the faint of heart, boys. You’ll get turned back at the Canadian border if you don’t have the supplies. Don’t think I mean it? I’ve seen plenty turned away.
“That’ll cost you a nickel, partner. And you, sir? Yes, a nickel.”
Eight days after disembarking the Seattle waterfront, the Ketchikan reaches Skagway at nine o’clock in the morning, its arrival greeted with a late spring snow that all but obliterates the long view toward White Pass. Eliza squints, and gazes the whole length of the long half-mile toward town. False wooden storefronts and the spire of two lone churches form Skagway’s pathetic skyline. Acres of mud, stumps, shacks, and shoddy tents fill in the rest of the scene.
This will be my home. 

A native New Yorker, Ashley E. Sweeney lives and writes in La Conner, Washington. She is a graduate of Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts and is an award-winning journalist in Washington State. Eliza Waite is her first novel. Visit her online at http://ashleyesweeney.com.

Copyright © 2016 by Ashley E. Sweeney. Reprinted with permission.


Lynn Lovegreen said...

Good description in the excerpt, Ashley!

Ashley Sweeney said...

Thank you, Lynn! Release date is May 16, 2016.