He would die in the dark.
What remained of his life that night was borrowed from the moments he’d spent with Old Ch'ák', sharing lukewarm coffee on the porch of the post office, waiting for only the thinnest letters to be loaded into oilskin bags. The weathered Hän elder had drawn maps in the ice to show him the old caves. The storm would come, he said, and the caves would save Tom’s life.
“Beware the shallow cave, as there is no shelter there,” Old Ch'ák' had said, “and the deep cave is home to bear.”
“So how will I know the right cave?”
The old man’s eyes disappeared into the crevices of his ancient face with his toothless grin. “You will know the right cave when you can open your eyes after the long dark, and find your path home.”
It had been the Yukon summer that drew Tom – the long days of light and warmth that renewed the land after the winter dark. He had grown up in the South, gone to school, learned the mechanics of being a man. But twenty-one years of classrooms did not fill a man’s soul, and he went north to discover the secrets the books couldn’t teach.
Sheer luck had led Tom to the post office that first winter. The dark had invaded him, and hunger finally drove him out into the bitter cold. Old Ch'ák', wrapped in furs, had beckoned to Tom, and directed him inside the post office. Soon Tom found his own bits of light on the dogsleds, delivering the mail between Dyea and Dawson, along the Chilkoot Pass Trail. The light rode with the words in his mailbags that brought news to loved ones, put fears to rest, and fostered dreams that sent the strongest, bravest, and most passionate men and women to the North.
But this night, the long dark of the North had won, fed by the loneliness of the man. Even the dogs had curled around each for comfort and denied him the warmth of their bodies. Solitude was his enemy that night, and it was the source of the lifetime of dark that gnawed on Tom’s soul.
His small fire sparked, and an ember hit one oilskin bag. It flared like a bright star, and with it, Tom knew where he might find the light and warmth he craved. He knocked the ember away and plunged his hand into the bag. Paper edges scraped his storm-cold fingers as he withdrew a random stack and fanned the letters out before him.
There were dreams and hopes and desires within the pages – the kind that could keep the solitude from consuming him in the dark. The first envelope came open easily. It was a purchase order by a Mr. Brown for three pair of silk stockings, one bottle of French perfume, and one yard of pink silk ribbon. It was addressed to a purveyor of fine ladies’ things in Seattle, and was written on coarse paper that smelled of cigar smoke and cheap perfume, stamped with the letter A. Tom knew the place, a cigar store in Paradise Alley, and imagined young Amy pulling the shade on the store, and charming Mr. Brown into buying fine things for a girl who was selling far more than cigars.
He replaced the purchase order into its envelope and tucked the open flap inside. His hand skimmed over the onionskin and crisp white paper that spoke of business, and instead found the delicate eggshell-colored paper that whispered with handwritten correspondence. The glue had stuck well in the middle, but with care, Tom was able to tease the flap open and reveal the tissue-thin letter inside.
I hope this letter finds you well, and, indeed, finds you at all. The mail service from Dawson City can be counted on to misplace letters like one counts on the frozen winter. Thus, I shall write as many small letters as my postage allowance will support, in hopes one or two might actually make it to you.
I know you told me it was foolish for a twenty-year-old girl to follow a dreamer to the ends of the earth, but to be honest, Mother, I’m not at all sure that I was following him. Perhaps I used his request to follow my own dream of adventure and luck.
In any case, Jim is well and working at the surveyor’s office until he can stake his own claim and we can be married. I have taken lodgings with a woman named Claire, whose husband spends his summers in the goldfields, and his winters in Seattle with his mistress. She doesn’t seem to mind this arrangement though, as it has given her the freedom and means to pursue her own artistry. She paints the most beautiful landscapes of the Dawson summers, and my walks with her in search of inspiration have led me to my own.
I’ve met a Hän healer who has consented to teach me her native medicines. We forage for yarrow and borage, and harvest the meadows of fireweed and wild rose. I’ve learned to make a salve to ward off the mosquitos that torment the miners, and one to heal burns. I can make soap, and have mastered poultices that draw out infection. This kind of botanical study has become my passion, Mother, and plant-gathering with my mentor reminds me of my childhood summers with you.
Thank you for giving me the love of wild things. The small bundles of herbs and flowers that hang in the corners of my little room now sustain me through the long dark winter.
All my love,
Tom studied the careful handwriting that filled each transparent page, as if he could find the sound of her voice, or the color of her eyes hidden in the paper. He could picture bunches of flowers hanging from strings in the corners of her room, and his imagination added glimmers of light among the botanical treasures. This woman had done something he had not thought to do. She had gathered and protected the bounty of the northern summer, and allowed the scent of the midnight sun to linger long after the light was gone.
He searched the packet of letters for more eggshell paper addressed to Mrs. Anna Ponninghaus of Pennsylvania, and found another envelope near the bottom of the stack, written in the same fine hand. This, too, he opened with care.
The Hän people of the North are quite remarkable really. My native mentor has only a few words of English, learned from her long-dead son-in-law, to speak to the grandson she no longer knows. I have even less of her language, and yet our communication is seamless as she teaches me her recipes and techniques for the medicinal plants we harvested this summer. The Hän are very strict with their rules about hunting and foraging, and they never strip an area bare of its bounty. I’m afraid the Dawsonites are less careful with the land and game, and within a few years, will deplete the forests of all the things which sustain us. Chief Isaac, who leads the tribes here, has moved his people about two miles out of town, so they are less susceptible to the corruption of the settlers. I long to visit that place, but have not dared to ask Ama, as my mentor calls herself, to take me there.
Claire worries that my friendship with Ama will affect my desirability to my intended husband. I’ve told her Jim cares not for my friends, nor do I have interest in any man who would hold my friendship with such a beautiful soul against me. I’ve seen enough men choose Hän wives to know that a capable woman is worth much in this place where the long dark of winter can kill as easily as a knife or a gun, but with much greater pain.
Jim looks tired and ill, as though the drink and smoke have already taken their toll. We have only been here a few months, yet I fear he will not survive winters here. Although we do not share accommodations, of course, being as yet, unmarried, he seems to care more for drink than for the company of one who would choose books and conversation to stave off the dark and cold. Music would also keep the winter outside where it belongs, but he does not sing, and I have yet to meet any man who does – at least not for others to hear.
Thirty thousand people lived in Dawson this summer, and I saw more of life in this town than I’ve ever seen in Philadelphia. There’s a spirit that anything is possible when the light shines all day and night, and it’s evident in the artists that have followed the commerce to this northern outpost. I am reminded that a civilization is defined by its art, as a measure of the quality of life to be found for its inhabitants. And even now, in winter, it is the artists and the singers and the writers who may have the best survival tools of all.
I wish you could experience this place, Mother. It is wonderful and terrible, and peaceful, and the hardest life I’ve ever lived. And yet, I cannot imagine living any place else.
All my love,
Tom held this letter to his nose and tried to catch a lingering scent of her. There, the echo of spruce sap, with a hint of something floral. It smelled as he imagined her hair would, washed in a shampoo she made herself from the herbs that grew in the hills around Dawson.
The fire was dying, and Tom shifted the bag off his legs to tend it. His toes had begun to numb with the cold of the storm outside the cave. He was out of the wind, which could peel the flesh it froze off a body like an orange rind, but still the cave was thick with frigid air, as though trapped deep under the ice of the Klondike River.
He tested his voice in the brittleness and hummed a piece of a harvesting song his Hän grandmother had sung to him when he was very small. Music belonged to the part of him he hid behind the fair skin and light eyes of his trapper father, and it was the first thing he’d lost when his father had sent Tom south.
They were long dead; father, mother, sister. A winter storm had killed his family while he learned his life from books, warm and safe in a classroom. He, alone, was left to face the long dark, and to choose. Because succumbing was as much a choice as surviving was.
Tom was so tired, and the storm had grown angry outside the cave, toppling the trees whose roots hadn’t grown deep enough. Tom’s eyes began to close with the certainty that this storm knew him. It wanted his life as payment for daring to think he could return to the land of his mother’s people, where his own roots had never grown deep enough, to seek light in the bitter cold and the long dark.
Tom fished through the oilskin mail bag for another stack of letters. He pushed the band off with trembling fingers and searched for the tissue-thin paper addressed in her hand. There was one, at the bottom of the pile. He tore at the envelope, aware that the cold had already staked its claim on at least one thumb.
Dear Mrs. Brown,
Tom stopped reading and stared at the envelope, wondering at the address to a Mrs. Millicent Brown in Portland, Oregon. He scanned to the end of the short letter, and yes, there was her signature. He continued reading.
It is with regret I am writing to inform you that I shall no longer be able to anticipate becoming your daughter-in-law, as Jim has found fit to end our engagement. He has taken up smoking, you see, and the long hours he spends in a cigar shop in Paradise Alley have left no room in his life for the kind of wife I expect to be.
I enjoyed our brief acquaintance, Mrs. Brown, and I wish you good health and a long life with which to enjoy it.
With Warmest Regards,
Hours, or perhaps days later, light crept into the cave, and Tom crawled on aching legs to bathe his hands and face in it. The storm had passed, and the barest winter daylight had commenced. It was enough, he thought. Enough light to deliver her letters. And then enough to guide him home.
The rocking chair was empty on the post office porch the day Tom returned to Dawson with oilskin bags full of the news of the world beyond the Yukon. He waited while the postmaster sorted the new mail, glancing outside every few minutes, hoping to see the shuffling, fur-wrapped figure of Old Ch'ák' lower himself into his usual place.
“You’ll have to go to Moosehide to find him,” the postmaster said. And Tom knew he would go to his mother’s village to thank Old Ch'ák'.
But first he would find her.
“I’ll deliver any letters you have for Helene Ponninghaus,” Tom said, as casually as a man with knotted nerves could speak.
The postmaster grunted. “Save them a trip in the snow, I suppose. Here, take Mrs. Mulroy’s letters, too. And you might as well drop these off for Mrs. Collins. I hear the cold’s been in her bones something fierce this winter.”
Tom brought Mrs. Collins her mail, and built up her fire, and put the kettle on to boil. Next door lived Mrs. Claire Mulroy with her tenant, Miss Helene Ponninghaus. His heart pounded so hard he feared it would leap from his chest and into her hands. He doubted she’d care to hold his beating heart, so he forced himself to breathe.
“Miss Ponninghaus?” He asked, when the door opened and a young woman regarded him steadily.
“Yes?” Her voice was throaty and held the echo of recent laughter, and her eyes were startling green. The scent of dried flowers danced around her like sunlight through a forest of trees.
“I have your mail.” Tom held the letters out, but was loathe to release them yet. Fortunately, she didn’t take them.
“Are you with the post office?” She asked.
He nodded, and she stepped back. Behind her, hanging bundles of flowers painted shadow patterns on the walls. “Will you come in for a cup of tea while I finish a letter to my mother?”
Tom’s heart settled back into his chest, and the warmth of her smile spread through him and filled the dark places with light.