Whispers of the Archipelago

by Janet Petrine

“Whispers of the Archipelago” placed fourth in Southern New Hampshire University’s 2021 Fall Fiction Contest.

Isolated building in the snow with a mountain in the background

Locals were accustomed to the peculiarities that laced through their meager population. Strange behavior accompanied the endless winters; it echoed through the harsh wilderness. For those among them with fragile souls, the magnificence of their seclusion brought instability. One young woman, spiking peaks of Denali backdropping her life, heard whispers.

Lily heard them all of her life, in the spring winds, in the snap and flutter of pinned sheets, rushing through the undulating grasses of the summer tundra. The voices had frightened her at first, a little girl at play in the black spruce forest, her toes buried in a thick cushion of dried needles. When she first heard them, Lily dropped her soapstone doll to the needles and ran to her father. By the time the child gave way to the woman, the voices no longer frightened her. She could not make out the words, yet the voices called to her, inviting her, to where she did not know.

Lily tied flies, minute, buoyant lures that fishermen angled after sockeye and coho from the shores of gurgling rivers. At a table strewn with tiny, colored feathers and sparkling thread, she wove miniature fly masterpieces. Her graceful fingers made feathery replica insects, delicate, fairy-tale amphibians. As the other girls were taken up for marriage by the local boys, Lily hung sheets on a line in a backyard that went on forever, and she crafted Steelhead Poppers, Yuk Bugs, and her signature Whirling Silver Dragon. She listened to the voices howl over the great mountain, breathe their hushed provocations through the white-trunked rows of quaking aspen.

One evening at dinner, Lily’s father forced a guest. A big-boned local trapper who wore beaver hide and possum tail in the summer. His weather-beaten face made him look older than he was; twice Lily’s twenty-four years. He had unsuccessfully attempted to court every available woman in the province. As a last resort, he vied for Lily, the girl who heard voices. He sized her up over a plate of roasted caribou and decided that she was not ugly, somewhat pretty even, when observed from certain angles. It was Lily’s eyes that sealed her fate, an anxious, blazing green. For the locals, trademark of her craziness. Her nervous glances, emerald pools of trepidation, triggered for the trapper images of prey—the glare of the lynx, the wily gaze of an arctic fox.

The trapper watched her rise and sit, mound potatoes and pour dark ale. In his excitement he spat food when he spoke. He choked on his beer. He pictured himself chasing her round and round his kitchen table, past the hides, the slacked open jaws, and out into the kill yard. The scene playing in his eyes made Lily want to fly away, over the pointy tips of the black spruce, over the icy brink of Denali. Lily closed her eyes and pictured the sea crashing against the gray volcanic rises of the archipelago.

A few nights later Lily’s father, fatigued and resolute, explained that sometimes life boiled down to simple decisions. He underscored, through her sobs, the need for clear thinking, for practical considerations like the prices paid nowadays for wolverine hide. He was not to live forever, and her flies, however beautiful, could not sustain her without him. With her head in her hands, her long, black hair a disheveled hive of misery, he gently spoke the words that stopped her tears. “You’re different, Lil,” he said, his voice faltering. “Now we make the best of it.”

A month before the wedding, Lily trudged six miles along a narrow creek to town. A gentle snow piled on the rocky path and the boulders that bordered the creek Lily followed six miles into town. Her hat, black badger with tail, slowly crested white. When she finally stood before the door of a tiny general store, she had to pull up her nerve. She took a deep breath, stamped the snow off her boots, and opened the door. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dark interior. The store, entirely made of wood, was packed to the rafters with everything from goat’s milk to chainsaws, from perfume to Lily’s tiny, feathered lures.

The shopkeeper, an old, wide-faced woman with eyes the color of the sky just before nightfall. She did not smile when Lily slumped to the counter. She knew, as did the rest of the village, about the coming marriage. With no words exchanged, she unraveled bolts of fabric across the dull glass countertop. Lily glanced at the delicate embroidered linen, the shimmering silk, scattered with miniature roses and random sprays of pearls. Instead, she pointed to a wheat-colored hemp tucked next to the burlap behind the counter. The old woman cut the yardage. When she handed Lily her package of disappointment, she took her hand and squeezed. In a moment, the young and the old women exchanged pities, the emerald sorrow—the sky condolence. The sound of a bell signaling the arrival of a customer tinkled through the store.

A young man, tall and unfamiliar to Lily, stood snow-blind, just inside the door. When he could see, he hurried past Lily to the fishing counter, his shoulder brushed against hers. Lily stood in the middle of the store and watched as the old shopkeeper handed him six of her glimmering Silver Dragons.

Without thinking, a sudden surge of excitement taking her, Lily went to him and blurted a question.

“Do you like my…the Silver Dragons?”

No answer. She smiled politely and began again. “Is it grayling you fly for now, in the winter?” When he turned toward her, the look on his face flattened Lily’s smile, crushed her excitement. She had seen the look all of her life, a panicked kind of recoil. A fear that her disarrangement could be caught, like a fever.

The shopkeeper quickly took his hand, still holding the Silver Dragons, and nodded, which meant he could pay next time. She put the flies in a small brown bag, then put the bag in his hand. Before he hurried away, he turned and looked into Lily’s unruly eyes. She slid into a whirlwind of sentiment. She heard a rush of whispers. No one ever really looked at her. The sound of the bell pulled her from her symphony of urgings. She watched him walk out the door. Before he disappeared, he turned and looked again, through the foggy glass window at Lily.

“He sleds all this way, from the faraway islands,” she explained, raising a gnarled hand to head. She pressed a strand into a wiry gray knot. “He comes all alone…annutto.” Her voice was sad, like the word. “He never speaks, mute,” she said.

The church was made of glacial rock and the peeled, crisscrossing logs of jack pine and tamarack. It was cold. Dim, flickering light from several nearly spent candles sent the shadows of Lily’s slumped-over father and the old shopkeeper bumping over the pews, solitary guests. Lily stood three feet from her groom, who was trembling with excitement, sweating in his stained white shirt. Their shadows, two narrow sheets of gloom, stretched to the rounded front doors. In the dead of the night, Lily’s voices had whispered her awake; they drove her stomach into a knot as she slipped the dress over her body. She stood waiting for the words that would steal her soul. The jumble of whisperings got louder and louder. The dissonant outpouring focused, voices melding. For the first time in her life, she heard a discernible word. The missionary cleared his throat.

“Speak now,” he said, “or forever…”

The wooden door creaked open. A rush of snow blew in behind the young man. The old shopkeeper gasped. She threw her hands in the air, her brown face awash with wrinkled joy, with kuyaruk as she threw her arms around Lily’s father. Lily turned. When she saw him, a white fox and timber wolf coat in his hands, the whisperings in her head combined into a one-word shout. “RUN!”

Category: Competition, Featured, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Student