Uncanny Vale

Home to the Literary Creations
of Erin Wilcox


Cold Flashes: Literary Snapshots of Alaska (University of Alaska Press, 2010)

Pacific waters drift through the Gulf of Alaska, north into Cook Inlet, mixing with glacier melt as they hug the corrugated mudflats of Turnagain Arm. On a cloudy night, the sole explorer of this tidal plain picks his way toward Bird Creek’s mouth. His fishing pole extends behind him. Waders carry his light frame across the muck.

The angler’s name is Donald. He knows the mudflats and how to navigate them safely: keep moving, especially where the silt is wettest. He took a bet he could catch his limit at the end of September, when the last silvers trickle through. Technically, he lost at midnight when only two fresh coho lay gutted in the freezer. But the early morning hours, which he has never fished before, provide one more slack low tide. He thinks of Cutter and Shaun taunting as they collect—Double or nothing, Donald?—and picks up the pace.

A gibbous moon peeks from behind the clouds, lighting his way. Donald’s stomach grumbles, and he pictures his wife, Lana, leaning over the stove, scowling, sweating, stirring the stew pot. When she learned he was going back out after dinner, she said, You promised to read ’Rora a bedtime story. You said we could look at the stars. Donald stops short at the memory.

A slurping sound revives him to the present. His left foot won’t come forward. He gives a little jerk, then a strong pull, which plants his right foot deeper.

He curses and twists against the mud at his calves. He tries to slip out of his waders, but finds them attached to his belt. His mind mires. From this point, the struggle appears choreographed, his movements sideways, forward, back, performed with a modern dancer’s precision. Then, a sudden stillness as he realizes movement aids the enemy, which has him up to the thighs.

His heart pumps blood through awkwardly stretched legs. Donald looks to the bridge above, his vision blurring around the edges. He calls for help and waves his arms. Silt spills into his boots.

The mud smells of rich decomposing life and the contents of his bowels as they empty.

“Dammit, Lana!” he yells, “I hate your stringy stew!”

Then he laughs.

Eventually, the rising tide reaches him. Frigid water licks his waist. The moon slips behind a cloud, and he thinks, it would be better if there were stars. Like the night of Aurora’s birth. Donald recalls that miracle moment when his daughter’s body slipped from the cavity where he’d planted her, coated in brownish red. He remembers Lana’s face, how she smiled with wet eyes.

He savors the crisp air in his lungs, and the sound of rushing water.