Alaska Shorts: “Buckets” by C.B. Bernard

HATHAWAY SQUATTED LIKE death itself over the remains of
the deer, dirty to the elbows with her innards. The smell rising from her open
cavity burned like ammonia. Fluids stung his hands and forearms. His shot had
entered behind the shoulder and low, spiraling through the doe’s organs like a
drill bit and bursting her bladder, tainting the meat with urine. Splinters of
bone punctured the stomach. Gastric acid trickled out in a pair of slow streams
that ran beneath Hathaway’s legs and down the beach to the water.
He wiped his face on his sleeve, up high by his shoulder and
away from the blood. Under other circumstances such a shot might embarrass him.
This time it didn’t matter. He wasn’t there for the deer. He’d come to kill his
friend John Stone.
Stretching the curve from his back, Hathaway stood and
looked around the beach for bear. This was when they’d get him — startle him
over a kill while his hands were busy, the scent of blood like a perfumed
dinner invitation. His quadriceps ached imagining the weight of a bite. He’d
been near bears before and the smell of death surrounded them, fetid and rank,
unapologetically savage. Bears terrified him. He couldn’t imagine ever getting
used to their presence here in Alaska. This was their damn country.
He glanced at his deer rifle, a stainless Winchester
ought-six he’d leaned against a felled spruce left on the beach by the tide. It
was cut and limbed recently enough that the exposed faces hadn’t yet
discolored. Concentric rings showed its age. Ancient. Dizzying. It seemed a sin
to log it. He guessed it had broken away from a raft being towed past the town,
toward the logging company camp.
Since the local Native corporation had sold the logging
rights, the town had entered yet another evolution. After a thousand years, the
corporation’s animal totem — raven on brown bear on killer whale — had been
re-imagined: helicopters swarmed the southern sky, log trucks prowled the
roads, barges ghosted in and out of the bay at night, hulking shadows on a
moonless horizon. The air trembled with activity. Locals remembered a time not
so long ago when the paper mill was here, in town, and the sour smell of pulp
coated everything like the rain, but now the pulp was made in Japan and the raw
trees came from here, as if, having killed the town by suffocating its economy,
the Japanese were coming back for its flesh and bones.

He’d heard fishermen in the
harbors complaining about all the deadhead logs in the water, how they had to
run them like a gauntlet while checking their crab pots, or cut them from their
gillnets like bloated corpses. Before he’d come to the island, Hathaway had
never run a boat. He still hadn’t run one in the dark, and like everything else
up here, the thought of it scared him. There were a lot of ways to die in

In 1999, C.B. Bernard left New England to write for a
newspaper in Sitka, Alaska, where he began to research rumors of an ancestor
who had explored the unmapped Arctic as a free trader a century earlier. Soon
he found records showing that Captain Joe Bernard had also moved to Sitka two
years before his death in 1972 — and that the state had buried his ancestor in
the cemetery next door to the house he’d rented. He’d put nearly 7,000 miles on
his truck driving to Alaska and parked it on top of his own family. That experience
and his research about Arctic exploration and how the past century has changed
the north led to
Chasing Alaska: A Portrait of
the Last Frontier Then and Now (Lyons Press/2013). It was a finalist for
a 2014 Oregon Book Award and a Publishers Weekly Top 10 Pick and National
Geographic top book choice. A former Alaska resident, Bernard now lives in
Portland, Oregon, with his wife and a temperamental bird dog named Shakespeare.

In Alaska, a lot of things
can kill you. Even the rain. This short story originally appeared in
Sporting Journal. 
To read more of the excerpt, download a free copy of the Alaska Sampler 2015.

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