Kill and Eat
A pair of pelicans flew over Bihart that summer and they must have been lost because no white pelican had any business in Alaska, least of all on a northwesterly course. The two birds fluttered and glided on past the glacier till their black-edged wings resolved with their white bodies and they were no more than two unsteady points in the distance.
Jane Runnoe had a penchant for augury, read a few palms and did a little cartomancy on the side, but she didn’t see the pelicans since she was sleeping along with most everyone else.
Tye Collins saw them only because it was his first summer in Alaska and he hadn’t yet adjusted to the unbroken twilight spanning the sleeping hours. When he woke in the middle of the night he would go for runs and tonight while he ran he looked up at the pelicans and the glacier and thought only that it was a strange and pleasant sight. Not for a moment did it cross his mind that it might be a portent of any kind.
About fifteen days after the last of the food had been distributed Tye Collins, John Franklin and Tony Pranz walked up the rectory steps and Tye knocked on Fr. Bradley’s door. There was a shuffling sound and the door opened. Fr. Bradley had been a fat man before the famine and living off his corporeal store had kept him from getting as emaciated as the rest of the villagers. The change in his physique, though, had been the most extreme and to the others he seemed a walking allegory of starvation. He stood now in the doorway with his overstretched skin draped down his face like a loose cloak hanging by the pegs of his nose and cheekbones. He was an older man, Father Bradley. He’d spent time in Bihart as a child and when he retired after forty-six years at a small parish in Sterling he requested the bishop’s permission to go back to the island. He’d fixed up a little chapel in his living room and on Sundays he’d say mass in the old non-denominational building by the saloon.
“Hello Tye. Hello John. Tony. Come on in.”
“Thank you Father.”
They came into the kitchen where the priest poured them each a glass of water. They sat around the table. Fr. Bradley put his newly thin hands on the table where he tapped them and then turned
them slightly till the thumbs were facing upwards. “What can I do
for you gentlemen?”
Pranz said, “We want your bread, Father.”
“We want your bread. For our kids.”
“I’m sorry,” The priest smiled and looked at the three men through his thick lenses. “I don’t understand. I don’t have any bread. I don’t have any food, I put it all in the town pile, same as everybody else. Who told you I had bread?”
Pranz said, “You do have bread, and we want it for our kids.”
Tye Collins said, “We mean the hosts, Father.”
Fr. Bradley smiled again but this time he nodded and looked at the center of the table. “Oh,” he said. “I see.”
Pranz said, “It’s just for the kids. They have a right to that bread.”
“That’s really not what the hosts are for.”
Tye Collins said, “I know, Father, but it’s a matter of life and death. Don’t you think this is what Jesus would want?”
“I tell you the truth, Tye, I don’t know. But I don’t think so. I think mass matters more.”
“Even if everybody starves?”
“Maybe. I think so.”
Franklin said, “But Jesus loves the little children.”
Pranz said, “Father, I’m not leaving without that food.”
“I understand, Tony. I’m sorry. I can’t stop you from ransacking the house, but I don’t think you’ll find the hosts. I hid them a while ago.”
Tye said, “Father, have you seen Chris and Cora?”
“Yes, I have, Tye. I’m so sorry.”
Tye stood up and the priest stood with him.
Tye said, “Thanks for your time, Father.”
Fr. Bradley said, “God bless you, Tye.”
When the Nome gold rush succeeded the rush in the Yukon, prospectors pored over countless rivers as they migrated across the some three-thousand miles between the two cities of dreams and disappointment.
One such river stood two hundred miles due east of what would later become Fairbanks. It was a very wide river flowing from a cluster of glaciers which included the world’s third-largest icefall. The river divides at one point, and a landmass of about half a square mile emerges for a long stretch before the water reunites.
On a freezing morning a few weeks before spring Jean Bihart and Claude Bennett were urging their dogs west when they stopped at the river and gazed up at the frigid landscape. Jean said he thought it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen and Claude said he was cold and hungry and that it was time to build a fire.
Five years later Bihart came back with a wife, two children and enough food for six months, and he built himself a house on the island that came to be called by his name.
Over the next century the town would be sometimes deserted and sometimes as populous as fifty people, but never more than that. People came to live on the island usually for a couple of years at the most.
In the winter carriages and later cars would cross the frozen river with whatever supplies were needed to survive the long agreeable summer. In time a saloon was built with a few upper rooms for the standard services, and there was also a small church next door along with a general goods store. Bihart never saw the establishment of an inn, no one wanted to visit in the winter and that was the only time the town could be accessed.
Residents increasingly imported generators and batteries and power-tools from Fairbanks, but technology made no further inroads on the island.
As soon as the door closed behind Tye Collins, Pranz said, “I’m giving you one last chance. Tell me where the bread is.”
“I’m sorry Tony. If I were you I don’t think I’d understand either.”
Tony chewed for a second on the inside of his lower lip and raised his eyebrows. Then he pushed back his chair, stood, took two steps toward the priest and with a great hunting knife drawn from his boot he cut the old man across the throat. Fr. Bradley brought his fingertips close to the gash on his neck where they trembled a moment, then he fell off his chair and his eyes were huge and his mouth opened and closed so that he looked like a fish hauled in from the catch. After a while he lay still. The blood pooled around his head in a halo and he had the appearance of a saint stupefied.
Franklin screamed once and then screamed again when he stood over the priest. Then he broke down sobbing.
Tony took Franklin by the shirt and put the tip of the blade to his throat. He steered him over to a corner of the room and said, “I need you to sit down, and I need you to shut up.” Franklin obediently sagged to the floor and held his face in his hands. Sounds came from where the body lay, cutting sounds and sounds of running water, but Franklin kept his eyes averted.
After a while Pranz came to where he sat and he crouched and said, “Look at me. John. John! I need you to look at me.” John raised his red eyes and Tony said, “He wouldn’t feed my kids, so now he’s going to feed my kids. There’s two bags of meat here, one is for your Zelda. The blood’s washed out so put it under your shirt or something. I still have the knife, John. Do you understand me? If you tell anyone about this, John, if you tell even your wife that I did this, I promise you I’ll kill you. Do you understand me, John? I promise. I will kill you. John, stop crying, come on. John! I need to know that you understand what I’m saying. Do you understand me? Okay, good man. You can wait here as long as you want, but I’d be getting home pretty soon if I was you.”
Eagles feed mostly on fish and there weren’t any in the glacial river surrounding Bihart so bald eagles were a rare sight.
Once back in the seventies, though, Tom Mattingly who owned the general goods store had seen a young fawn drinking at the far side of the river and he’d seen a bald eagle drop out of the sky and sink its talons into the little deer’s neck. The two animals tumbled a few moments on the ground but then all Tom could see was the eagle standing on top of a small patch of brown.
When Pranz reached home the boys were asleep and his wife was sitting on the couch trying to crochet a scarf. She’d hoped to make the boys matching ones for the previous winter but hadn’t gotten around to it. Now with the food-shortage there hadn’t been any need to cook or wash the dishes and the boys spent most of their time trying to sleep away the hunger so she’d had plenty of time to make the scarves. She didn’t know how to crochet and at this point she didn’t care, she did it only to keep her wits. The third scarf was as lumpy and uneven as the first two. She was a lovely woman, brown eyes with green flecks along the periphery of the pupils. She stood a good two inches taller than her husband and she was terrified of him.
He came in and said, “I found some food.”
“I found some food for us and the boys.”
She put down her yarn and her hook and stood up.
“You found some food?”
“Here in this bag. It’s meat.”
“Where did you find it?”
“Rosie, I can’t tell you.”
“Listen to me, Rosie. I need you to take this food and cook it for the boys. I need you to do that right now.”
“But where did you find it?”
“Rosie, I can’t tell you. I already told you I can’t tell you. Now I need you to go cook this and I need for you never to ask me again where I found it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I found this for the boys and for us. You have to leave it at that. Do you understand?”
She went to the kitchen, unwrapped the meat and put about an eighth of it in the frying pan and the smell was so fine they both wanted to cry but Tony made them wait until he’d woken the boys. Then they closed the windows and the curtains and they ate the tiny portions over the course of two hours and none of them said a single word. They sat at the table and from time to time Rosie would steal glances of fear and reverence and servile gratitude at her man.
For the first time in at least a hundred years the river hadn’t frozen solid. It took until mid-December for a thin sheet of ice to cover even the water’s surface and from that point on the ice didn’t thicken.
Bihart was too small for any formal government and firearms were forbidden on the island, so when it was agreed that all the food be placed in the church for a regular daily distribution there was no way to enforce compliance. But the residents were a close-knit bunch and besides no one really thought starvation was imminent, they’d figure out a way to get supplies eventually,
and everyone brought all they had and submitted to the new communal system.
The panic hit in early February when Dan Pullman tried to drive his ancient SUV across, he had the crazy hope of getting enough momentum to skim over the brittle surface of the river, and both he and the vehicle plunged down into the water and didn’t come back up.
When the thaw finally came a few brave souls ventured out on homemade rafts but the odds of survival were slim, even if they withstood the currents and made it to shore somewhere downriver, even if they managed to get their bearings and determine the route to civilization, the distance would be very great, not to mention the threats of the wilderness itself. It was far more likely that they’d starve or drown or be killed by animals than that they’d find a
town somewhere. The ones who went didn’t come back.
Meanwhile the allotted portions of food got smaller and then stopped altogether.