In the Middle of Nowhere With Company
by Ruth Nestvold
Jordyn gazed out of the window of the pickup-slash-taxi at the evening streets of Rolynka, wondering if she had made a mistake. The former gold-mining town on the Bering Sea looked like a clapboard nightmare, only friendly instead of frightening.
And she had given up everything for this?
Her Eskimo driver peered out of the windshield. “I think you have brought the birds of sorrow with you.”
Jordyn blinked and leaned forward to gaze in the same direction. A flock of dark birds — crows? ravens? — winged their way across a sky still as bright as during the middle of the day.
“Of course, we always have birds of sorrow,” the driver continued, nodding sagely. “But there are more than usual.”
Jordyn felt her throat close at the woman’s superstitious comments. If there were such a thing as birds of sorrow, she had surely brought them with her. Losing them wasn’t quite as easy as running away to just south of the Arctic Circle.
Luckily, the truck pulled up in front of a large gray house built on piles and gravel fill to combat the effects of permafrost. A sign swinging in the evening breeze declared it the Bering Straits Inn. Jordyn opened the door of the pickup and clambered down, surprised all over again at how hot it felt at after nine p.m. in the sunny street of this dismal excuse for a town.
While the driver went around to the back of the truck for her luggage, the door of the “inn” opened, and a white woman of indeterminate age emerged, draped with jewelry, features painted on her face, and hair dyed blue-black.
The apparition let out a merry laugh before speaking. “Welcome to Rolynka, Ms. Pinnel! Or may I call you Jordyn?” The voice to go with the outrageous appearance was more gentle and cultivated than she would have expected.
Since Jordyn had decided to start over here in the middle of nowhere, it wouldn’t make any sense to do it on the wrong foot, as little inclined as she was to put a positive face on things. She nodded, attempting a smile. “Jordyn is fine.”
The driver dropped her suitcases in front of the stairs and nodded up at the sky.
It was the birds again.
The gaze of her odd landlady followed that of her driver. “Ah.”
Jordyn was feeling at a bit of a disadvantage; both women seemed to think the crows in the sky had something to do with a life and two deaths left behind in Seattle.
She cleared her throat. “And you are?” Jordyn asked the woman who had made so free with her own name.
The merry laugh echoed in the dismal clapboard side-street again. “Forgive me. Victoria Askew, at your service.” She stuck out a hand loaded with rings; one finger sported a gold nugget reaching from knuckle to joint. “You can call me Vicky.”
Jordyn shook hands politely with the painted lady, wondering if this town contained anyone who might be considered normal Outside. “Nice to meet you, Vicky.”
Her faux black-haired landlady let out yet another laugh. “I hope someday we will be able to make that true.”
The driver dumped the last of the suitcases on the steps. “That will be forty-seven dollars.”
Jordyn repressed a surprised swallow and pulled the wallet out of the back pocket of her jeans. The drive from the airport hadn’t been that far.
But they were in Alaska. Not only in Alaska, nearly as far away from the Lower Forty-Eight as you could get and still be a part of the continental United States.
“A lot of luggage for one week,” the proprietor said as she snatched two of the suitcases and led Jordyn down the hall to her “suite.” Which actually turned out to be a largish room with a cooking niche.
Jordyn swung a suitcase up on the bed. “I was thinking of settling down here. I inherited some gold land on the Rolynka River about ten years ago.”
Vicky leaned against the small fridge and propped her hand on her generous hip. “Gold land? Are you Mandy Milcinovich’s daughter?”
Jordyn nodded and snapped open the clasps of the slate gray Samsonite.
The older woman pulled back her long black hair with her free hand and gazed at Jordyn more closely. “Wow. I was too young to know your mother well, but your grandfather was something of a legend in these parts. The Milcinovich land, though — there’s a tribe of Eskimo squatting there, fishing the river. I suspect it’s not yours anymore.”
“What?” Jordyn whirled away from the closet, and the striped cotton blouse she had been hanging up fell to the floor. “What do you mean it’s not mine?”
Vicky shrugged. “I don’t know that for sure, but the natives have been living there for a long time. There’s a rule about adverse possession in Alaska.”
“And that is?”
“If you don’t defend your property, it’s gone.”
Jordyn stands in front of the roller coaster, arms crossed, angry and trying not to show it. She has to make this day good for the sake of their daughter. Avis turns, waving, and Jordyn forces a smile on her face and waves back as her daughter boards the “Flying Dragon.” Dan glances at her briefly before following.
At the first descent, Jordyn’s smile becomes more sincere. She can hear Avis laughing and screaming all at once above the rest. Then they are going up the first loop, and Avis and Dan are no longer in their seats.
They are sailing through the air, Dan’s hand gripping Avis’s tightly. It is as if they have been shot out of a cannon.
Avis’s laughter still fills the air.
Jordyn must be dreaming, but in her state of shock she is sure she hears her daughter’s voice. “Mommie, look, I’m flying!”
The next day, Jordyn went in search of the single lawyer in town. She’d had enough of lawyers to last a lifetime, yet it seemed she wasn’t done with them yet.
Over a year it had been, a year of litigation and courtrooms and briefs. Jordyn had often felt like giving up and going away to mourn in peace, but at the same time, she didn’t want the bastards who had killed her daughter and soon-to-be ex-husband through faulty maintenance to get away with it.
Or so she told herself. Of course, it was always possible that she had just been out for revenge.
She found the lawyer’s office on Seward Ave., the main street in town, right between a church and a bar. The store front was painted a bright fire engine red, and as she pushed open the door, a bell tinkled above. Jordyn stepped into an office bare except for a battered shelf of books against one wall, a simple wooden desk in need of a paint job, and a couple of chairs that looked like they had come from Goodwill. There was no secretary. The only decorations on the walls were a calendar with a scene from the Oregon coast and a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree made out to Hyram Burley from the University of Oregon.
The man behind the desk certainly looked like he would fit right in Eugene. He was a big man, with long graying brown hair tied in a pony tail and a wide linen blazer over his T-shirt. In front of him was the only thing in the room that looked like it had cost anything: a state-of-the-art laptop. Jordyn knew, because she had the same machine in her carry-on back in her “suite.”
“May I help you?” he said in a voice higher than Jordyn would have expected given his size. If the world were a just place, he should have had some kind of rumbling bass.
“I’m Jordyn Pinnel,” she said, leaning over the desk to shake hands. She dug the folder with the wills and deeds and documents that had to do with the Alaska property out of the bag slung over her shoulder. Taking the chair on the opposite side of his desk, she handed the folder to him. “I’ve been told that there might be a problem with some property I inherited outside of Rolynka, and I wanted to get some legal advice as to my rights.”
Lawyer Burley took the papers out of the folder with one hand and dug a pair of reading glasses out of the pocket of the blazer with the other. “Ah, yes,” he said, when he saw the title to the property. “Some natives have laid claim to that property.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
He laid aside his glasses again and looked at her. “Under Alaskan law, when someone uses another person’s land ‘adversely,’ if it goes unchallenged for a period of ten years, title eventually goes to the person using the land. It’s referred to as the Doctrine of Adverse Possession, but most people just call it ‘squatter’s rights’.”
“I didn’t even know about that law or anyone squatting on our property, so how could I have challenged it?”
Hyram Burley leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms in front of his massive chest. “You could still contest it. Recent Alaskan governments have passed laws to strengthen the rights of titled owners. But may I ask you if you can tell me why you think the land belongs to you?”
Jordyn repressed the impulse to raise her voice. “I inherited it from my mother.”
“And when was that?”
“Almost ten years ago.” The year Avis had been born.
“And when was the last time anyone in your family stepped foot on that land?”
Jordyn glared at him, too angry to answer.
He got up, stood in front of the bookshelf for a moment scanning the titles, then pulled out a heavy book. After leafing through the pages for a moment, he found what he was looking for and came to sit across from Jordyn again, book in hand. “‘The uninterrupted adverse notorious possession of real property under color and claim of title for seven years or more, or the uninterrupted adverse notorious possession of real property for 10 years or more because of a good faith but mistaken belief that the real property lies within the boundaries of adjacent real property owned by the adverse claimant, is conclusively presumed to give title to the property except as against the state or the United States.'” When he was finished reading, he pushed the book across to her, his finger on the passage. “What that is usually interpreted to mean is that if someone has been paying taxes on land for at least seven years, but usually ten, they can uphold their case in court as owners of the land.”
Jordyn stared at the passage, her vision blurring. “I’ve never heard of that before.” She hated to admit that he had a point — she had not thought about that land for years. And she had certainly never paid taxes on it. Why should she have more right to it than people who lived there?
The lawyer looked down at the papers on his desk again. “Walter Milcinovich died five years before your mother. I presume that was the last time any of you laid eyes on this piece of property?”
The question was obviously rhetorical, so once again Jordyn was silent.
Burley picked up her deeds and the copies of the wills, now apparently worthless, and knocked them together on his desktop before handing them back to her. “I’m not saying this to deliberately injure you, Ms. Pinnel. I merely want to point out why the doctrine of adverse possession in Alaska makes a certain amount of sense, especially in such remote locations as here in Rolynka.”
Jordyn rose. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Burley. I see that there is little you can do for me.”
The lawyer rose too. “Wait a minute, Jordyn — may I call you that?”
She nodded shortly.
He came around his desk and took her elbow. “You might not want to, but you can call me Hyram. Now, before you never speak to me again, there’s something I want to show you.”
As Hyram Burley dragged her outside, Jordyn felt like she was being taken over by a force of nature. Even after little more than five minutes’ acquaintance, she had the strange conviction that whenever he put his mind to something, that something came to pass.
On the sidewalk outside of the lawyer’s office, a beggar had taken up a spot with a sign that said, “Shadow artist extraordinaire!”
Hyram dropped a dollar in the hat. The putative beggar bent slowly in an elaborate, almost circular bow, and his shadow stretched across the street, touching one frontier storefront after another and then extending so far down Seward Avenue it was hard to recognize where it ended.
So that was shadow art. Right.
Other shadows broke the symmetry of the mime’s shadow, and Hyram glanced up at the sky. “Looks like you brought the birds of sorrow with you.”
“Yeah, that’s what the taxi driver said too.”
“Ellen Teayoumeak?” Hyram laughed, a booming sound that echoed between the clapboards, nearly as big as he was. “If there’s anyone who can help you get rid of those birds, it’s her.”
Jordyn would gladly get rid of her sorrow, with or without birds, but she doubted it would be that easy. “And how does she do that?”
Hyram shrugged. “Dunno. Magic. All I know is she had me bury mine in my backyard. I still don’t understand it, but after that I could deal with them better. The power of ritual, maybe. Here we are.”
The power of ritual? It was going to take more than the power of ritual to help Jordyn learn to live with the death of her daughter, the unfairness of it, the life cut short.
Hyram pulled open the passenger door of a pickup nearly the same shade of brick red as the store front of his office, clapped two large hands around her waist, and boosted her into the seat.
“Thank you,” Jordyn said. “I think.”
Hyram patted her thigh in a much too friendly way. “That’s close to not mentioning it, so I won’t ask for the favor.”
Jordyn and the other mourners stand in their dark clothes, under dark umbrellas, watching the coffins disappear into the damp earth. Beyond the rows of graves, the trees rise up like a wall of green drenched in interminable Seattle drizzle.
Around her, people are crying, sobbing softly under cover of their umbrellas, children from Avis’s grade school, colleagues of Dan’s from Boeing, even colleagues of Jordyn’s from Elliott Bay Book Company.
But not Jordyn. Her throat is closed and her eyes are dry.
Opposite the graves from her, a woman sobs behind a dark, embroidered handkerchief, doing her best not to drown out the minister. Jordyn wishes she could have banned the Other Woman from attending the funeral, but these are civilized times, and one does not do that, one tolerates one’s husband’s lover at his funeral and is brave and proud.
It is not one of Jordyn’s best moments.
It took them about five minutes to get away from the clapboard storefronts and the houses built on pilings and out into the tundra heading east. Jordyn was surprised all over at the lack of trees — she had imagined Alaska very differently.
“Permafrost,” Hyram said, as if he had read her mind. “Trees around here don’t get much taller’n me. Those that can survive the winter.”
Jordyn nodded. It looked nearly as bleak as Nevada, just greener. Low-growing plants, bushes, and trees grew only where they were cultivated or near streams.
They drove for a while in silence. Once they had reached the middle of nowhere, Hyram began to slow down to turn off on a gravel track. Jordyn grabbed the armrest as they bounced along the rough road.
The drive ended at a collection of four motor homes parked near the banks of a small river. A plot of land had been cleared to one side and a vegetable garden laid out. In front of the motor homes, bushes of roses bloomed. Jordyn had to admire the dedication necessary to keep roses alive in this climate.
When Hyram stopped the pickup, two of the doors opened. The driver who had brought Jordyn into Rolynka stepped out of one, and a man she had not yet met out of the other. The four of them met on the space between the motor homes.
Above, a flock of dark birds circled.
“Ellen,” Hyram said. “I believe you’ve met Jordyn Pinnel.”
The Eskimo woman nodded.
“She’s the granddaughter of Walter Milcinovich and she has title to these lands.”
“Will she take it away from us?” Ellen Teayoumeak said to Hyram, not looking at Jordyn.
There was a moment of human silence, the only sounds the gurgle of the river and the calls of the birds in the sky.
It was too much for Jordyn. “No, I won’t take it away from you. It’s obviously not mine.” She turned to Hyram. “You’ve showed me what you wanted to show me. Can we go now?”
Then the Eskimo man she didn’t know spoke. “Wait. Are those birds of sorrow yours?” He nodded up at the sky.
Jordyn grimaced. “That’s what everyone keeps telling me.”
“Good,” the man said, and went back into his motor home.
She stared after him, shaking her head. What was supposed to be good about birds of sorrow? Assuming that’s what they were in the first place?
“You must forgive my brother Ernest,” Ellen said. “He doesn’t talk much.”
Then the door opened again, and Brother Ernest came back out, carrying some kind of shotgun: Jordyn didn’t know firearms as well as she knew computers.
“You can’t do away with the birds of sorrow completely,” Ernest announced. “But I can kill one for you.”
Jordyn was still staring at him when Ellen answered in her place. “I think that would be a good idea, Ernest.”
Ernest needed no further encouragement. He raised the shotgun, propped it against his shoulder, sighted, and fired.
One of the black birds dropped out of the sky and landed in the near-arctic sagebrush. Jordyn had an image of her daughter dropping from the sky, and she closed her eyes and clenched her hands together at her sides.
Hyram nudged her with his elbow. “Go get it, Jordyn. It’s yours.”
This was all too weird, but Jordyn found herself wading through knee-high underbrush which wasn’t under anything in search of a dead bird. She found it easily, but then she stood there staring at it for a moment. It was dark and glossy in the midday sun, a thing that until a few moments ago had been alive but now lay broken on the tundra.
No, she hadn’t cried yet, and she certainly wouldn’t cry in front of strangers.
Jordyn bent over and lifted the dead bird between thumb and forefinger.
It was kind of gross.
The four of them drove back into Rolynka in two pickups. When they pulled up in front of a big house on one of the back streets, Jordyn’s landlady and a score of people she didn’t know were there to meet them.
Jordyn climbed down from the cab, and Vicky came over to drape a friendly arm around her shoulders. “We heard it was time to bury some of your sorrow, so we decided to come and offer our support.”
Hyram led the way to a backyard with a high chain-link fence, but before they were halfway there, a horde of huskies with a black lab in their midst met them at the gate, barking. “Calm down now, boys and girls,” the lawyer said, opening the gate. The dogs ignored him, jumping on him happily.
“Down! Sit!” This time, the canine horde obeyed immediately.
“I raise dogs for the Iditarod,” Hyram said over his shoulder to Jordyn. “This way.”
As he began to lead them all towards the back of a huge yard, the dogs took that as an invitation of come along.
The lawyer turned. “Stay!” They did.
A small tool shed stood at the back corner of the yard, and Hyram got out a spade. “Where would you like to bury your sorrow?”
“No, no, none of that. It’s your sorrow, you need to choose a place for it.” He grinned at Ellen. “At least that’s what the local wise woman told me.”
Carrying the dead bird in a “Souvenirs of Alaska” plastic bag, Ellen nodded.
It looked as if Jordyn didn’t have any other choice but to humor them.
She began to pace the perimeter of the fence and noticed that she was nearing what looked like a small shrine with a picture of a highly pregnant, attractive brunette.
Jordyn looked down, feeling again her own loss.
There at her feet was a four-leaf clover. Jordyn bent down and picked it, smiling. Avis had always believed in signs of good luck like this.
She rose and pointed at the spot. “Here.”
“All righty.” Hyram stepped on the side of the spade and shoved it into the ground. Soon he had a hole big enough for a dead bird.
Ellen came forward with the plastic bag, Ernest beside her, and handed it to Jordyn. Together, they tipped the black-feathered thing into the hole.
“Now you cover it,” Ellen said.
Hyram handed the spade to her, and she shoveled the dirt back into the hole, while Ellen and Ernest began a keening harmonious sing-song. Jordyn’s throat ached abominably. Everyone in the backyard seemed to have joined the strange song, while the shadow artist created a dance of shadows over the grave. And then she was having trouble seeing, and she realized that tears were streaming down her face, salty moisture dribbling into her mouth.
The last shovel of dirt fell on the buried bird of sorrow, and Jordyn found herself on her knees, sobbing on the melting permafrost.
Hands at her elbows and upper arms pulled her back up, and she dragged the front of her T-shirt across her stinging eyes.
A huge cheer went up from the citizens of Rolynka assembled in the lawyer’s yard. The dogs took this as a sign to start barking and stampeding the company. Jordyn found a black lab dancing around her, jumping up and trying to lick her face.
But this time the obedient lab didn’t obey, bumping her head against Jordyn’s knees and thighs, tail wagging so hard her whole behind moved back and forth with the rhythm. Jordyn knelt down and scratched Syrna behind the ears, but didn’t go so far as to allow her face to be licked. “What is it, girl?” she asked, laughing.
“She likes you,” Hyram said. “But now it’s time to go get a burger. You’re welcome to come back and visit her anytime, though.”
Jordyn wiped the remainder of the tears out of her eyes with the back of her hand and smiled. “I’d like that.”
The whole group ended up in the frontier-style bar next to Hyram’s office.
“Looks like the birds of sorrow are dispersing,” Ernest said, gazing up at the sky while he held open the door of the Gold Rush Saloon for his sister, Jordyn and Vicky.
Ellen shook her head. “They’ll be back.”
Vicky nodded. “Can’t kill all of them — sorrow is as certain as death and taxes.”
“And love,” Ernest added.
Jordyn found herself smiling.
The barkeep was a young Eskimo with a long braid and a purple and yellow Hawaiian shirt so bright it nearly hurt her eyes to look at it. Hyram pulled him off to the side to begin an earnest discussion, so Jordyn sat on a bar stool next to Vicky.
“What exactly was the sorrow he buried?” she asked quietly, nodding in the direction of the lawyer.
“I would tell you to ask him yourself, but it’s common knowledge, so I won’t insist. He lost his wife in a car accident down in Eugene years ago. She was eight months pregnant at the time.”
Jordyn stared at the counter top decorated with the water stains of generations of glasses. In the constant heartbreak of the last fourteen months, she seemed to have forgotten that she wasn’t the only one with sorrows to bury.
On the other side of her, Ellen’s cell phone started playing something that sounded like an Abba tune, and for some reason that made Jordyn smile again.
Ellen slipped off the bar stool to find a quieter spot to take the call, and Hyram Burley took possession of it in her place. “A secret joke?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Abba.”
The lawyer chuckled.
Ellen returned, closing the cell and slipping it into her woven shoulder bag. “I have to go. Trisha wants me to take her to the airport for the flight to Fairbanks. She says she’s leaving Rolynka.”
“Leaving Rolynka?” Vicky echoed.
“For good?” Hyram asked.
Ellen nodded. “She says she can’t stand it another minute in this place.”
“What about the library?” the barkeep asked.
The stolid Eskimo woman shrugged and pulled on her jacket. “I asked her too, but she said that was Rolynka’s problem, not hers.”
When the door closed behind the taxi driver, the silence was total except for the faint sound of a radio in the kitchen.
Finally the shadow artist broke the silence — the first time Jordyn had heard him speak. “Where the hell are we going to get a new librarian at this short notice?”
All eyes turned on Jordyn.
“Now wait a minute,” Jordyn said, holding up her hands to ward off the expectations. “I just found out that the land I came to live on is no longer mine, and I don’t know how long I’m going to stay here. Besides, I’m not a librarian.”
Vicky chuckled. “Most of us here in Rolynka aren’t what we are.”
“What did you used to do back in the Lower 48?” Hyram asked.
“I was a manager in a book store.”
He turned in a circle, hands outspread, making a point to all present. “There you have it. Perfect.”
The barkeep in the atrocious shirt set a basket with burger and fries down on the bar next to her. “Here you go, Ms. Pinnel. On the house.”
Jordyn stared down at the unordered food. She loved burgers and fries, but with her metabolism slowing down so much now that she was nearing forty, she rarely allowed herself that kind of indulgence. With a start, she realized she rarely allowed herself anything anymore except anger and pain.
She picked up a fry between thumb and forefinger and took a bite. It was crisp and salty, just as it should be, with no recognizable trace of fat.
When she had arrived here in Rolynka less than twenty-four hours ago, it had seemed as if everything were conspiring to send her away again. Now it seemed as if everything was conspiring to keep her.
But what did she have to go back to, after all? She had sold everything, had come here intending to start over, to get as far away as she could from all the little everyday details that reminded her of Avis and Dan. There were her many friends in Seattle, of course, but they were proper mourners, not people who would cheer when she broke down sobbing on the permafrost.
Maybe crazed was what she needed right now, something on the edge of civilization and sanity.
Besides, she had brought the birds of sorrow with her. She knew they weren’t going to go away anytime soon, but today for the first time in fourteen months, she had been able to cry — and able to smile at the thought of Avis. It was a start.
Perhaps it really was magic.
“Okay,” Jordyn said, picking up the hamburger. “Librarian it is.”
At the very least it was a new experience, having people around her clapping and laughing and slapping her on the back while she bit into a burger.
Ruth Nestvold is an American writer living in Stuttgart, Germany in a house with a turret. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous markets, including Asimov’s, F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, Baen’s Universe, Strange Horizons, Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction, and several anthologies. Her short story “Mars: A Traveler’s Guide” is presently on the final Nebula ballot. In 2007, the Italian translation of her novella “Looking Through Lace” won the Premio Italia award for best international work. Her novel *Yseult* / *Flamme und Harfe* (Flame and Harp) appeared in translation from Penhaligon, a German imprint of Random House, in January 2009. She occasionally maintains a web site at ruthnestvold.com
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