Alaska Shorts: "She Was Good, She Was Funny," by David Marusek

David Marusek
In a borrowed
cabin, in a northern wood, Walt Baffen welcomed winter. He had sacks and tins
of food in the root cellar and a moose quarter in the cache. He had three cords
of firewood. He had a bookshelf full of paperback classics and a propane
lantern to read them by. He had a shortwave wireless and a carton of spare

Most of all, he
had his work — ten crates of obsidian flakes from the University of Alaska
Fairbanks archeology lab, a case of excavation maps and site catalogs,
calipers, a stereomicroscope, and a 12-volt laptop computer. By spring — if all
went well — he would return home to England with his dissertation, The
Detection of Meat Processing in the Prehistoric Record: Microblade Analysis of
Late Pleistocene Denali Artifacts in the Brooks Range.

In the meantime
there was plenty to do. Walt hauled water uphill by sled from a hole he had
chopped in the lake. He split and stacked firewood. He shoveled snow from his
rather lengthy driveway. He taught himself to cross-country ski and visited his
few and odd neighbors.

In early
winter, when it was still warm enough to start the old Subaru wagon, Walt made
monthly trips down to Fairbanks to consult with his graduate committee chair,
to take in a show at the Goldstream Cinemas, and to get pissed or laid, or

Soon, real
winter began. The dense Arctic cold settled itself about his cabin and pressed
against the logs. The sun no longer rose above the ridge across the highway. At
night the splitting crack of freezing trees sounded like rifle shots.

Walt stayed
indoors. He fed the wood stove day and night. It hissed and groaned as it
poured out heat. Walt slept in the loft, near the ceiling where the heat
collected. During the day, no matter how warm the cabin got, the air near the
floor was frigid. So Walt wore a silk kimono over heavy wool trousers and used
his pac boots as house slippers. All in all, this log cabin — 120 miles below
the Arctic Circle, with no plumbing and no electricity — was more comfortable
than his damp and drafty student flat back in Oxford.

Today the
weather began to change. Walt checked the dial thermometer nailed to a tree
outside the window. An American thermometer, it had two concentric scales: the
Fahrenheit large and easy-to-read, and the Celsius grudgingly small. The
needle, these past ten days, had lingered near minus 40 degrees, equally bitter
on both scales.

It had indeed
warmed up, so today would be a good day to do firewood. There would be about
four hours of weak daylight. But first Walt needed to make a quick trip to the
outhouse, and then to have some breakfast. He opened the wood stove and tossed
two pieces of birch into the miniature hellscape inside. The papery bark
exploded into flames, sizzling and popping, and trickles of smoke leaked around
the edges of the cast-iron plates. Walt filled the teakettle and placed it on
the hot spot. He donned his stylish wolverine hat — which had set him back £200
— opened the thick cabin door and stepped outside.

Now he could
tell with his nose it was warmer. And the patch of blue sky above the cabin was
hazing over. The thermometer, up close, read minus 30 degrees Celsius, minus 22
degrees Fahrenheit. He took the path to the outhouse. If he didn’t walk too
fast, his thin clothes could actually retain a layer of warm air next to his
skin — a trick of the North.

Walt stood
behind the small wooden outhouse. It wasn’t true what he’d been told: Urine at
minus 40 degrees does not freeze before it hits the ground. It steams and cuts
through snow like lava.

On his way back
to the cabin, Walt was startled to see someone standing in the path. At first
he didn’t recognize the man in old insulated overalls and bulky brown parka.
The man’s wolf-trimmed hood was pulled into a face tunnel so that only his eyes
and the bridge of his nose showed. But his large size, the way he filled the
path, made Walt think of his neighbor, Gus Ostermann. And he recognized Gus’
mukluks, the ones made from caribou hide, knee high, and trimmed with bits of
arctic fox, ermine and seal fur. Hell, thought Walt. Bloody, bloody hell . . .

Author David
writes science fiction full time in his low-maintenance
cabin near Fairbanks, Alaska. According to
Publisher’s Weekly, “Marusek’s writing is ferociously smart,
simultaneously horrific and funny, as he forces readers to stretch their
imaginations and sympathies.” His work has appeared in
Nature, MIT Technology Review, Asimov’s, and other periodicals and
anthologies and has been translated into ten languages. His two published
novels and clutch of short stories have won the Theodore Sturgeon and Endeavour
awards and earned numerous nominations. He is currently at work on a novel about love, faith, and space alien
invasion in the Alaskan bush.

This excerpt is from one of Marusek’s few published stories that is not
in the science fiction genre. Rather, it portrays a young anthropologist’s last
ditch efforts to be a good neighbor to a jealous man. You can read the rest of
the story in the Alaska Sampler 2014, a free eBook.

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