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'Sukkwan Island'

David Vann
A view looking up through the tree canopy along the Rainbird Trail in Ketchikan shows what Southeast Alaska is known for -- its misty, damp rain-forest climate.
Photo by HALL ANDERSON
The author's father, James Vann, saw himself as an outdoorsman. In 1980 he shot himself in Fairbanks. David Vann dedicated "Legend of a Suicide" to him.
Courtesy David Vann / HarperCollins Publishers

"Sukkwan Island" is the novella at the center of David Vann's collection of stories "Legend of a Suicide" (Harper Perennial). This is how it begins, reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

I had a Morris Mini with your mom. It was a tiny car, like an amusement-park car, and one of the windshield wipers was busted, so I always had my arm out the window working the wipers. Your mom was wild about mustard fields then, always wanted to drive past them on sunny days, all around Davis.

There were more fields then, less people. That was true everywhere in the world. And here we begin home schooling. The world was originally a great field, and the earth flat. And every beast roamed upon the field and had no name, and every bigger thing ate every smaller thing, and no one felt bad about it.

Then man came, and he hunched up around the edges of the world hairy and stupid and weak, and he multiplied and grew so numerous and twisted and murderous with waiting that the edges of the world began to warp. The edges bent and curved down slowly, man and woman and child all scrambling over each other to stay on the world and clawing the fur off each other's backs with the climbing until finally all of man was bare and naked and cold and murderous and clinging to the edge of the world.

His father paused, and Roy said, Then what.

Over time, the edges finally hit. They curled down and all came together and formed the globe, and the weight of this happening set the world spinning and man and beast stopped falling off. Then man looked at man, and since we were all so ugly with no fur and our babies looking like potato bugs, man scattered and went slaughtering and wearing the more decent hides of beasts.

Ha, Roy said. But then what.

Everything after that gets too complicated to tell. Somewhere in there was guilt, and divorce, and money, and the IRS, and it all went to hell.

You think it all went to hell when you married Mom?

His father looked at him in a way that made it clear Roy had gone too far. No, it went to hell sometime before that, I think.

But it's hard to say when.

They were new to the place and to the way of living and to each other. Roy was thirteen, the summer after seventh grade, and had come from his mother in Santa Rosa, California, where he'd had trombone lessons and soccer and movies and gone to school downtown. His father had been a dentist in Fairbanks. The place they were moving into was a small cedar A-frame, steeply pitched. It was tucked inside a fjord, a small finger inlet in southeastern Alaska off Tlevak Strait, northwest of the South Prince of Wales Wilderness and about fifty miles from Ketchikan. The only access was from the water, by seaplane or boat. There were no neighbors. A two-thousand-foot mountain rose directly behind them in a great mound and was connected by low saddles to others at the mouth of the inlet and beyond. The island they were on, Sukkwan Island, stretched several miles behind them, but they were miles of thick rain forest and no road or trail, a rich growth of fern, hemlock, spruce, cedar, fungus, and wildflower, moss and rotting wood, home of bear, moose, deer, Dall sheep, mountain goat, and wolverine. A place like Ketchikan, where Roy had lived until age five, but wilder, and fearsome now that he was unaccustomed.

As they flew in, Roy watched the yellow plane's reflection darting across larger reflections of green-black mountain and blue sky. He saw the trees coming closer on either side, and then they hit and the spray flew up. Roy's father stuck his head out the side window, grinning, excited. Roy felt for a moment as if he were coming into an enchanted land, a place that couldn't be real.

And then the work began. They had as much gear as the plane could carry. His father inflated the Zodiac with the foot pump down on one pontoon, and Roy helped the pilot lower the Johnson six-horse outboard over the transom, where it dangled, waiting, until the boat was fully inflated. Then they attached it, lowered the gas can and the extra jerry cans, and that was the first trip. His father went in alone, Roy waiting anxiously inside the plane while the pilot couldn't stop talking.

Up near Haines, that was where I tried.

I haven't been there, Roy said.

Well, like I was saying, you got your salmon and your fresh bear and a lot of things other people will never have, but then that's all you got, including no other people.

Roy didn't answer.

It's peculiar, is all. Most don't bring their kids with them. And most bring some food.

They had brought food, at least for the first week or two, and then the staples they wouldn't want to do without: flour and beans, salt and sugar, brown sugar for smoking. Some canned fruit. But mostly they were going to eat off the land. That was the plan. They would have fresh salmon, Dolly Varden, clams, crab, and whatever they hunted: deer, bear, sheep, goat, moose.

They had brought two rifles and a shotgun and a pistol.

You'll be all right, the pilot said.

Yeah, Roy said.

And I'll come and check on you now and again.

When Roy's father returned, he was grinning and trying not to grin, not looking directly at Roy as they loaded the radio equipment in a watertight box, then the guns in waterproof cases and the fishing gear and tools, the first of the canned goods in cases.

Then it was listening to the pilot again as his father curved away, leaving a small wake behind him that was white just behind the transom but smoothed out into dark ridges, as if they could disrupt only this small part and at the edge this place would swallow itself again in moments. The water was very clear but deep enough even just this far out that Roy couldn't see bottom. In close along shore, though, at the edges of reflection, he could make out the glassy shapes beneath of wood and rock.

His father wore a red flannel hunting shirt and gray pants.

He wasn't wearing a hat, though the air was cooler than Roy had imagined. The sun was bright on his father's head, shining in his thin hair even from a distance. His father squinted against the morning glare, but still one side of his mouth was turned up in his grin. Roy wanted to join him, to get to land and their new home, but there were two more trips before he could go. They had packs filled with clothing in garbage bags and rain gear and boots, blankets, two lamps, more food, and books. Roy had a box of books just for school. It would be a year of home schooling: math, English, geography, social studies, history, grammar, and eighth grade science, which he didn't know how they'd do since it had experiments and they didn't have any of the equipment.

His mother had asked his father about this, and his father had not given a clear answer. Roy missed his mother and sister suddenly and his eyes teared up, but then he saw his father pushing off the gravel beach and returning again and he made himself stop.

When he finally crawled into the boat and let go of the pontoon, the starkness hit him. It was nothing they had now, and as he watched the plane behind them taxi in a tight circle, then grind up loud and take off spraying over the water, he felt how long time might be, as if it could be made of air and could press in and stop itself.

"The taste of salmon
" by David Vann (2/6/94)
By DAVID VANN