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by Alex Sydorenko

One day, two strangers came to Kodiak in search of work. A man and woman. They were always together. They never left each other's side. They spoke a language no one could understand. When the two were asked where they were from, they just shook their heads uncomprehensively. When somebody brought out an atlas so the two strangers could show us their homeland, even this failed. No one knew where they had come from or where they were going.
     That same day fog rolled into Kodiak, covering the town and surrounding green hills. And then rain came, a storm which lambasted the coast.
     It rained every day in Kodiak. We sheltered in our tents, but the storm caused the tent poles to quiver and bend, until they gave way and came tumbling down. When we unzipped ourselves from our sleeping bags to crawl out to readjust our fallen tents, we got thoroughly soaked in the process.
     At dawn it would still be raining. We'd dress and leave our tents, and walk a few miles down Chiniak Highway into town. There would be a bluish tint to the fog as it rolled over the ocher-colored mountains. We weren't alone. Black Raven would be circling overhead in the sky, ominously crowing. And nearby, on the saddle between the mountains, there would be deer, standing taut, watching us with their dark watery stares, and when we spoke a few words to them, their ears cocked and they bolted away, disappearing into the forest.
     It was a two-mile walk into town. We were all looking for work in Kodiak. There were quite a few of us. Some had come here by a Boeing jet; others simply just stuck their thumb out and hitchhiked. We'd come from all over and for some of us it had taken everything we had just to get here. There were always stories to tell and hear about how someone had come to Alaska. Some had worked to get here, some had others pay their way. Some had left high-paying positions. Some had risked everything to come up here. Some had come to Alaska on a dare. We all came here searching for something. We all had hope- that's what Alaska offered, that was its allure: Those things that were unnamed, those mountains and glaciers, waiting to be discovered. An escape from a crowded world. A land of riches. A place of new beginnings.
     But some of us yahoos were so inexperienced that we didn't even know how to properly build a campfire using a small pile of kindling and pine boughs. Some of us had never even been in the woods before. Most of us had come up to Kodiak with Klondike fever, having read such advertisements in magazines as:

Thousands of openings! Fishing
No experience required!

     So now we were all here, ready and willing to work. We all hoped to get a job aboard a fishing boat. We'd comb the docks where the fish boats anchored. Nobody was saying much. The sailors in their Day-Glo rainsuits mended nets and readjusted rigging and paid us no mind and only silently shook their heads when we asked if there was work. None of the boats were hiring: the skiffs, seiners, crab boats, shrimp trawlers: none of them. There wasn't any work in Kodiak. It was still too early in the season. The salmon hadn't started spawning.
     Time wasn't right yet. It was hard to imagine this as a fishing boom town. The sea was still empty of boats, but occasionally we'd see the outline of a schooner sailing far out at sea.
     The boats docked at the harbor...The Midnight Pass wasn't hiring. Neither was the Knot Working. Nor the Pacific Cloud. Nor the Anything Possible. The Snake Eyes was hiring but nobody wanted to work on that boat because it was notorious for sailors losing their lives. But one boat did look promising: the El Dorado. Everyone smelled a bonanza with this one. The captain, an old grizzled seadog (whose sole companion was a one-eyed Siberian husky), seemed to have given everyone a "maybe." The captain never really said much. He hemmed and hawed and never really looked you in the eye, choosing rather to observe the distant horizon. Then he'd give you a try. He'd test out your capability by asking you to help untangle a tangle of fishing gear and buoys. In this way he tested your sea-worthiness. The captain knew if you were worth your salt. He knew all about those hired hands who at sea were calamities; slow where they should be agile, seeming sometimes to have four feet instead of two hands and two feet.
     The El Dorado was the one boat we were all vying to get aboard...All of us kept hushed about the job prospects. But it was obvious that everyone was vying to get aboard it because a lot of fellow job-seekers could be seen hanging around and fumbling through the tests while the Captain just smoked his pipe and silently watched.
     The captain of the El Dorado kept us on tenterhooks.
     There wasn't much to do in Kodiak. These were desultory days spent kicking around town, sitting with fisherfolk in the harbor cafe playing endless rounds of cribbage because of a lack of agenda. Watching another spell of rain...
     There were so many rainy days in Kodiak. We were all tentbound, writing letters, scribbling away on steno pads filled with dreams about what we'd do with the money we'd earn. And then we'd fall asleep to the sound of the rain pelting our tents all night long.
     One day the rain stopped. We all poked our heads out of our tents. The sky had cleared. The sun hit the white hills and they softly blazed. Spirits soared. Everybody was stringing up their soaked flannel shirts and underwear to dry.
     Tent City was down in a gravel pit named Gibson's Cove in the shadow of a mountain range.
     Twice a week, Tent City would get new members as the ferryboat arriving from mainland Alaska brought new travelers in search of work. We didn't tell them anything, we kept our work prospects secret. More and more wide-eyed travelers with seabags slung across their backs kept showing up. The population of Tent City multiplied, quadrupled. There were so many tents now that it began to look like a refugee camp.
     What a cast of characters. Yahoos and flunkies and go-getters. There was the Kentucky Kid with his newly-bought pea jacket and his ambitions. He was the rosy-faced farm boy who never saw an ocean until he was 24 years old.
     There was Old Tex, the alcoholic chainsmoker, who bragged how he lived off his social security checks down in Mexico where it was cheaper and how he would migrate south to California after the fishing season ended to go work the harvest.
     There was the girl from Alabama who wanted to work in the cannery so she could save up and make it back north to the mainland to the big blow-out fest in Talkeetna at summer's end.
     There was even an African from Senegal who spoke Oxford English and had a degree in psychiatry. Everyone thought he was a little crazy to come all this way to work in the fishing industry.
     There was Clyde, the white Rastafarian guy from Maine with his blond dreadlocks and hooded anorak who was stoned all the time with his secret stash of Ziploc pot. His first week at Tent City he came running scared out of the foggy woods where he'd been poking around for fresh sedges and moss to eat because he was a vegetarian. He claimed to have seen pale faces staring at him. He said he wasn't stoned either. He'd point back at the edge of the woods to where he saw the faces, but they only thing we saw and heard was the cawing of that trickster black raven. The faces spooked him so much that he never went back into the woods. This wasn't the only time he saw things. Some nights he'd be sitting around the campfire and he'd see something off in the darkness. He was like a hound dog when in the night his eyes see those uncanny things which are hidden from the sight of man.--Everyone was telling Clyde to lay off the pot for awhile.
     And more and more yahoos kept on arriving.
     Every morning the coals of the fire were covered by gray ashes that shifted in the morning wind. We'd all get up and dress and walk down Chiniak Highway to resume looking for work, but we always came back with no prospects. oftentimes I'd spend the rest of the day walking down on the beach, exploring the slippery rocks covered with incrustation where seagulls had dropped their shells and bits of sea urchins, or picking things up that had washed ashore, such as starfish or seabeans stripped of their casings. Others would appear on the beach and together we'd scavenge around for firewood and haul whatever we found back to camp. As day grew into night, we congregated around some burning white driftwood that hissed and spit in the fire, and we drank and ate and got to talking.
     There was fried fish and Spaghetti-Os and cans of corn. We'd drink and polish off bottles of Night Train, rotgut whiskey, wine. All of us were feeling down on our luck. We talked about what work we would do if we could get it.
     "Don't worry," we all told one another, when discussing the salmon run, "It'll start up soon."
     One guy started banging on an old drum and another guy was strumming a guitar and singing that Beach Boys song about this being the worst trip he'd ever been on and how he just wanted to go home. We all knew what he was singing about.
     One night there was a full moon and a drunk Scotsman in the camp yowled across the cove's black water, stirring whatever Krakens there were in the dark, foreboding ocean.
     The idleness lead to drunkenness and brawling. Things oftentimes got unruly. Oboy oboy, these yahoos all would get drunk and then start talking and opinionizing and pretty soon someone says something that sets another person off and before you know it, they're in each other's faces. Then another fiendishly drunk yahoo would throw a handful of bullets into the campfire and we all ducked for our lives. It got so bad, all the drinking and the fighting that I went and pitched my tent in the sprucewoods and decided that I'd rather live all by my lonesome that with a bunch of drunken yahoos. It was a good site, on the edge of a cliff. It offered a panorama of the blue-white Pacific and of Tent City down below across the bay. At night I sat in peace and looked down and saw all the tents aglow from the flashlights of those reading books inside their tents.
     It couldn't go on much longer. We were all pining to get aboard the El Dorado and get the hell out of Tent City. Staying in one's tent for day's on end during the rains made us all a little stir crazy. And none of us wanted to get as crazy as the Bicycle Man.
     The Bicycle Man could be seen pushing his bicycle with all his belongings up and down the Chiniak Highway coast. Obviously he was a man of independent enterprise. Dangling from his handle-bars were some sardine and Spam tins. He had an orange milk cart attached to the front and inside was a CB radio--though whomever he was talking to on it was a complete mystery to us. The guy was always completely covered with dusty Army clothes from head to toe even on those days when the rains stopped and it was beautiful and bright sunny. He'd been spotted everywhere on the island. He was something of a legend. People saw him pushing the bicycle down Chiniak Highway near the Coast Guard base miles away. It Seems that the Bicycle Man even had a kayak. Some fishermen I knew said that they'd see him way out in Kizhuyak Bay way on the other side of the island, and he was paddling up a storm, going to God knows where. They said that his mind was gone. Some said the Bicycle Man hadn't been the same since the Earthquake-Tidal Wave of 1964. Others said he was a Vietnam veteran who'd gone crazy from living alone in nature and seeing too much light on the water. They claimed he was a dusty, unkempt seadog who knew something about the moon and the tides because he'd been living outdoors all his life. I'd see him occasionally at the Salvation Army whenever they handed out free sandwiches or I'd see him in the library reading a book--or rather he stared a page for hours without turning it.
     Meanwhile things continued getting really unruly down in Tent City with all the drinking and mayhem. The Kodiak police were called in several times to settle disputes and even arrested a few of the yahoos for disorderly conduct. Already the police were on a first name basis with some of us yahoos.
     Honestly, The Pacific salmon must have taken pity on us all because soon after the salmon run began and the season was off to a start. The boats were leaving the docks. To our dismay, we discovered that the El Dorado had sailed away with its two newly hired deckhands: Clyde the Rastafarian and the Kentucky Kid.
     This rather depressed me. I needed work bad. So I settled on second best: the cannery.
     The cannery was not without its benefits: you'd come home smelling like a fuckin salmon, and when you closed your eyes to sleep, you'd see thousands of salmon cross your eyes. The slime line...It was monotonous, exhausting work. You couldn't even hear yourself think because of the din of machines and conveyor belts. An unending limbo of toil carried on hour after hour at top speed. Sixteen hours a day like a dog in a kennel. A half-hour into the job, I would start hoping for the day to end. But after a month I began to feel myself gaining strength in my legs and shoulders. All day long the five species of salmon poured in endlessly came down the slime line: chinook, sockeye, coho, chum and humpback. These salmon had nosed their passages through the seven seas of the world, only to return to Kodiak to spawn in its birth waters (only to be captured by a seiner's net and thrown out of the rolling bin of the cannery.) There were thousands of them. Sometimes there'd even be an albino salmon, and one of the workers would hold up this white wonder for us all to see. But such diversions were seldom and the work, otherwise, rarely came to a standstill.
     Then I moved a rung up the ladder and got promoted to dock work. All day and night fishing boats would arrive bringing the day's catch. Their cargo hulls would be filled to the brim with freshly caught salmon. I donned a rubber suit and climbed down inside the boat until I was up to my neck in slimy, salty dead salmon stinking of brine and kelp and blood. Then, I proceeded to rake the fish into a suction tube that transported the fish into the cannery. The thousands of salmons' eyes were wide open and their mouths parted as if in expectation....Sometimes I slipped and sunk into the mass of salmon and this invoked laughter from my fellow cannery co-workers while the foreman would loom above us on deck yelling at us to get our asses back to work. It got to be pretty nerve-wracking.
     Here in the primordial, antediluvian semidarkness of the fish tank I would break by back with work while thinking warm, summery thoughts of faraway locals, and wonder how things were going with the El Dorado.
     At workday's end I was shabby, bearded, my shirtails were untucked, and I reeked of fish.
     I walked back down Chiniak Highway to Tent City, exhausted from the day's labor. Alutiiq children who were carrying sandpails and playing on the beach would point and laugh at my appearance. What was so funny? Back at camp I barely recognized myself in the mirror. I may have been dressed in a goofy yellow rainsuit and Alaska baseball cap, but there was something else...
     I am becoming a fish.
     Wide-eyed, smelly, a bit loonish.
     Like I came from the sea.
     Ichthyology never got so personal.
     This continued day after day until the days blurred into one long continuous cannery workday. There was very little day-to-day variation until one day I came back to camp to find that the rain had washed my tent down the cliffs into the Pacific. I had to sleep somewhere, so I went to the Salvation Army where every evening the doors opened at five o'clock for a free supper. There was always a line, mostly fisherfolk and some freeloaders. We were all men except for one Alutiiq Indian woman. She kept to herself. She wore owlish glasses and kept her dark hair in a braid. After the meal, we all matted down on pallets for the night and she kept to herself, settling down in the corner and reading her Bible before falling asleep. None of the other fellows ever talked much to her, nor did she ever say much.
     One day I got to talking with her. She told me she'd just come from the south of Kodiak where she worked with a research group studying the southern expansion of the sitka spruce. She'd gone ahead without the others one day, up a nameless river headed into the misty, green- mossed hills. She was looking for sitka spruce, but instead she found a mother bear and her cubs wading across the river in search of crowberries. The Alutiiq woman slowly walked away to safety but suddenly realized she left her bag behind. Meanwhile the mother bear was poking around her bag, nosing into its contents..
     When the bear and cubs left and the woman came back, she found everything untouched, except the Bible was gone. The woman later found the Bible by the sitka spruce. The Bible smelled of bear.
     The next morning I went back to work at the cannery, but I was eager to get back to the shelter and talk and listen further to the Alutiiq woman. That evening after supper, she told me other stories about shamans and strange cairns of stones found on foggy summits of Kodiak's mountains, left by her Alutiiq ancestors who had magical powers and could summon spirits and communicate with wild beasts and divine wisdom from nature. These were quiet evenings in which I heard many strange and extraordinary things, some of which I could barely believe. Oftentimes the Alutiiq woman would be the only one talking because the others had drifted off to sleep. The only other sound was the splatter of rain against the shelter's windows. It was raining steadily everyday and night now until it became a storm with the magnitude the likes of which I had never before witnessed. The wind broke waves high across the breakwater of Kodiak's bay. The sea was choppy with whitecaps. Not a single fishing boats dared go out now with a choppy sea and poor visibility. The barometer was falling. Squalls of heavy rain were separated by bursts of sunshine. The physics of the air was volatile, unpredictable and hungry. The sea was churning and the boats in the harbor shook mincingly from the fifty-knot winds..
     One afternoon while walking down the rainswept Chiniak highway into town I ran into the Bicycle Man. We were coming around a bend from opposite directions. He was laughing and talking aloud to himself while pushing his bicycle. He had a shaman's rattle and wore a necklace of animal teeth. Somewhere overhead in the treetops a black raven was ominously cawing.
     The Bicycle Man met my eyes and all he said was Gone, Gone, Gone...And then he brushed past me, laughing and pushing his bicycle with the sardine tins dangling from the handlebars. I just shook my head incredulously and kept on walking. It wasn't until later that I learned what he meant. Somehow he knew before the rest of us did: The El Dorado had capsized out at sea. The captain had radioed in a Mayday distress signal. The Coast Guard was already in the process of searching for the vessel and any survivors. Plumbing the Pacific's depths with sonar generated maps. We were all worried about the captain and his dog, Clyde, and the Kentucky Kid. After a few days with no luck, the Coast Guard suspended its search. Everybody at Tent City gave a moment of silence to the memory of our friends.
     The storm ended. The sea had calmed. There was a rainbow over the bay.
     That same day, I saw the man and woman who no one knew. They were walking in the old Russian orthodox cemetery on the hill. They were by the gate and entered the cemetery side-by-side. One immediately turned left, the other right, but then they merged again and walked together in the same direction among the gravestones and disappeared over the hill. That was the last time we ever saw them.

Alex Sydorenko graduated from Arkansas State University and now lives in Chicago.

Publications: Alex Sydorenko has stories in the literature journals Yefief and Fish Stories

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