Our bare legs redden from the ocean’s sting, a shade darker than a slap from our stepmother. She’s across the road from the beach up at our house, once an old float-house itself, aching with a migraine that fills the room like her Vantage cigarette smoke. She’s lying in bed with the curtains closed and her dark glasses on, next to a box of powdered Hostess donuts and a red glass ashtray filled with cigarette butts. The rest of our younger siblings, four of them, are in the living room watching Saturday morning cartoons on the little square black and white TV.
Down on the beach, we three sisters fend for ourselves like shipwrecked kids. We are 11, 10, and 8 years old and we build a small fire and roast hot dogs. We chase one another down the beach, whipping the air with bull kelp. We collect limpets and white-striped wish rocks. We walk out in the ocean past our waists, then our chests, as the sea lifts our feet from barnacled rocks. We ignore the family’s drowning curse: an uncle tangled in the rigging of his overturned troller, an uncle frozen stiff on an ice floe, cousins toppling into the sea from skiffs and canoes.
We defy all our parents’ rules: Don’t go out over your waist; wear a life jacket; wear shoes in the water; don’t jump on slippery boulders and logs; get out of the water and don’t splash if you see killer whales. We remove our orange life jackets. We crawl atop the large boulders, jump on wet logs. We holler out across the strait at a whale’s breath pluming high into the sky.
A Southeast Alaskan May tide lifts an old spruce log from the barnacled rocks and rolls it into the gray sea. A large pointed branch protrudes to the sky and the log transforms into a unicorn-like sea creature. We three sisters we push the log out further. We’re familiar with imagining beasts—logged off stumps with old-man’s-beard moss hanging from faces, a driftwood dragon sculpted at the treeline, a witch flinging smoky curses from a dark cavern.
The three of us girls straddle the log. What’s left of the bark has long stripped away. With the unicorn log’s horn protruding upward in front of me, I paddle with my stick. My younger sister sits behind me pushing her stick against the boulders as we pass. My older sister rides the log in the back, poling and paddling along the curve of the beach, around the mouth of the creek, around the corner toward the old seaplane ramp.
Above us, low-lying clouds breath a light mist on our heads. A harbor seal raises its head above the surface of the sea and watches. We paddle the log past the view of our house, and when we do, we shapeshift into young women. Me, at fifteen years old, having already enchanted my womb with a baby and planning a wedding. My older sister at sixteen soon to marry her teenage boyfriend. My younger sister devising her escape to live with my older sister. Beyond us, a flock of goldeneyes dip their heads into the silver sea, searching, and a heron stalks the tidepools, plunging its dagger-like beak into bullheads. We use this magic to save ourselves. And beyond us, a log, with gulls riding its back, drifts northward down the strait through the rain-dotted sea.
Vivian Faith Prescott was born and raised in Wrangell, Alaska, a small remote island in Southeastern Alaska. She lives and writes in Wrangell at her family’s fishcamp. She’s a founding member of Community Roots, the first LGBTQ group on the island. She’s also a member of the Pacific Sámi Searvi, and writes frequently about Sámi diaspora. Her newest poetry collection, Silty Water People, is now available from Cirque Press and her chapbook, The Last Glacier at the End of the World, is forthcoming from Split Rock Press.
Image: “Davidleerothacorn” by Nicole Monroe
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