by Janet Petrine
“Whispers of the Archipelago” placed fourth in Southern New Hampshire University’s 2021 Fall Fiction Contest.
Locals were accustomed to the peculiarities that laced through their meager population. The strange behavior was companion to the endless winters and the harsh wilderness. For those among them with fragile souls, the magnificence of their seclusion brought instability. One young woman, the spiking peaks of Denali backdropping her life, heard the gentle urging of whispers.
Lily heard them all of her life, in the wind rushing over the tall undulating summer grass of the tundra, in the snap and flutter of pinned sheets. The voices had frightened her at first, whispering while she played in the black spruce forest, toes buried in a cushion of dried pine needles. By the time child gave way to woman, the voices no longer frightened her; they had become a curious partner. She could not make out words, yet they were there, indiscernible utterings swirling at the edge of the wind. They lured 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 fashioned miniature fly masterpieces. Her graceful fingers wove 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 Dragons. She listened to the voices howl over the great mountain, breathing 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 weathered 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 elk 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, her eyes were trademark of her craziness. Her nervous glances, emerald pools trepidation, triggered images of prey for the trapper—the glare of the lynx, the wily gaze of an arctic fox.
He 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 around 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, take wing and sail over the treetops, over the icy brink of Denali. Lily closed her eyes, she pictured the sea beneath crashing against the gray volcanic rises of the archipelago. The voices, low and murmuring, rumbled the pit of her stomach.
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 whimpering. “You’re different, Lil,” he said, voice faltering. “Now we make the best of it.”
A month before the wedding, Lily trudged six miles along a narrow creek to town. Lost in her misfortune she missed her favorite, a thick-billed murre perched on a boulder along the path. Gentle snow piled on the rocks strewn at the edges of the creek. Her hat, black badger with tail, slowly crested white. When she arrived at the tiny general store, she took a deep reluctant breath, stamped off the snow, and opened the door.
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 sky, did not smile when Lily slumped to the counter. Instead, she looked away, not to increase Lily’s suffering. The village was buzzing about the upcoming marriage. She quietly unraveled bolts of fabric across a dull glass countertop. Lily glanced at delicate embellished linen and shimmering silk, she shook her head and pointed to a wheat-colored hemp tucked next to the burlap behind the counter. The old woman cut the yardage and handed Lily her package of disappointment. She took her hand and squeezed. In a moment, the young and the old exchanged pities, emerald desperation met the merciful sky. The sound of a bell signaling the arrival of a customer tinkled through the store.
A young man, tall and lean, his angled face unfamiliar to Lily, stood just inside the door. His gaze settled on her fretful green eyes and stayed there. Suddenly fearful, he looked as if he might run. Instead, he hurried to the bait and tackle, his shoulder brushing Lily’s on the way. Her voices stirred. The worn planks of the floor creaked loudly as the old woman waddled to meet him. Bright arctic wildflowers embroidered along the bottom, scraped the sealskin tops of her mukluks as she hurried. Without a word, she handed the young fisherman six of Lily’s glimmering Silver Dragons.
Overwhelmed with curiosity, Lily went to him, eyes flashing and blurted a question.
“Do you like my…the Silver Dragons?”
He didn’t answer, he looked instead at the feathery creatures in his hand, then nervously back at the shopkeeper. She smiled politely and began again. “Is it grayling? Do you fly for grayling…in the winter?” The look on his face flattened Lily’s smile. It extinguished the excitement that had burned in her stomach like an ember. She had seen the look all her life, a panicked recoil, a tangible fear that her disarrangement might be caught. Like a fever.
The shopkeeper quickly took his hand and scooped up the Silver Dragons. She nodded, which meant he could pay next time. She put the flies in a small brown bag. Before he hurried away, he looked again into Lily’s unruly eyes and the whirlwind of sentiments raging within them. Lily heard a rush of whispers, the murmuring voices braiding together, conjoining. She tried to understand. The sound of the bell jolted her to attention. She watched him walk out the door. Before he disappeared, he turned and looked at her through the foggy plate glass. No one ever really looked at her, never intentionally. For a brief moment, the embers in her stomach flaring, her anxiousness stilled, the voices settled into silence.
“He sleds along the great river,” the old woman pointed a gnarled hand southward. “He comes alone…annutto,” her voice was sad, like the word. “All the way from the islands. He does not speak,” she shook her head slowly. “Mute,” she said.
The wedding dress hung from her shoulders like a formless shroud, without the slightest design or pleating, no carved scrimshaw buttons, no fringe, no meticulous needle work. The church was made of glacial rock and polished, crisscrossing jack pine and tamarack. It was cold and made gloomy by winter’s mid-day sun and a heavy snow. A handful of nearly spent candles sent shadows of the only guests, Lily’s father and the old shopkeeper, bumping over the pews. Lily stood three feet from her groom. The trapper quivering in excitement, glistened with sweat in a buckskin tunic stretched taut over his swollen belly. Lily closed her eyes and waited for the vow that would crush her soul. The constant whispering, chaotic and urgent throughout the night suddenly changed. For the first time in her life she heard the faint formation of language. A single word. She strained to hear. The missionary cleared his throat.
“Speak now,” he said, “or forever…” The heavy door creaked open. Everyone turned. The young fisherman stood in the frame; a rush of snow blew in behind him. The shopkeeper gasped. Just as it had through the foggy glass, the fisherman’s gaze fell upon Lily and it stayed there, his eyes burning through her. In his arms, a white fox and caribou parka waited, shades of earthen brown against snow-white fur. Flowing rows were bordered by intricate, geometric fleece. Beaded fringe and bright arctic wildflowers embroidered the edges. The shopkeeper threw her hands in the air, then around Lily’s father. Her brown face awash with wrinkled joy, with kuyaruk.
Lily’s voices converged into a single phrase. A brilliant, crystalline instruction, “FLY!”
Category: Competition, Featured, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Student