Third place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2019.
"No Whispering, No Secrets" by Ryan Masters
First of May. Serotonin sang in Alaska State Trooper Bill Kwalchuk’s head like a bow string at full draw. It was a spring song. Nothing but potential. Grinning, he burst like a wolf out of the tree line of black spruce and throttled the snowmachine across a muskeg clearing. As the vehicle levitated across the snow, plumes of powder pelted its hood and windshield.
Kwalchuk released the gas and geared down on the far side of the clearing, floating back onto the trail beside the river. Breakup was loud here. Through the bare alder and willow, enormous cakes of ice glittered on the Yukon. The trail led to a windowless cabin in the southern depression of a hillock, a hundred feet or so above the water line. Constructed of saddle-notched white spruce, the cabin had stood for eighty-odd winters. It still appeared sound. Snow melt revealed a sod roof covered with flattened kerosene cans and a cold, crooked pipe chimney.
Two men, both biologists, warmed themselves by a small fire in front of the cabin. These biologists had called in the body that morning on their satellite phone. One had long hair, looked Native. Utterly expressionless. He met the trooper’s eye and nodded. The other, a nervous white kid, smoked a cigarette and bounced in his boots. They’d caught and cooked some burbot while waiting for Kwalchuk to travel the twenty-seven miles from Eagle, the nearest Alaska State Trooper post. Fish heads rested in the snow among a messy slick of skin and guts. Kwalchuk killed the engine, dismounted, and struggled up the short, steep slope to the cabin. His boots post-holed the deep, slushy spring snow.
“Inside?” Kwalchuk asked.
“See for yourself,” the Native kid said.
This cabin was the first of four cabins along a hundred and twenty-mile trapline originating in Eagle. Used by trappers for nearly a century, the trapline was not an easy place to winter.
“You two okay?”
“Just fine,” the Native kid said. The white one whinnied and lit another cigarette from his first. Kwalchuk was unsure of what to make of the sound. The cabin’s door, a lightless mouth, hung open.
“How’d you two get here?”
“Snowshoed. We’re doing a survey along this section of the river.”
“Lots of marten on the Upper Charley,” said Kwalchuk.
“Are you going in?” the white kid asked.
Kwalchuk surveyed the area in front of the cabin. The arched ribs of an old hunting canoe poked through the snow. A shed, an old cache of some kind, and five empty doghouses. Nothing had been disturbed in some time.
Kwalchuk snapped on a flashlight and entered the cold belly of the cabin. A single ray of sun lanced the gloom through a small gap in the roof. Rusted jaw and leghold traps hung from pegs. Two newer Conibear traps rested on the floor, their hinged metal rectangles clenched tight. Dishes, magazines, a handmade wheelbarrow, a toboggan, a drill, a boiler, some clothes and shoes, the stove. Plenty of canned food lined the shelves.
Kwalchuk trained his light on the back corner of the cabin. The corpse remained seated in a rough-hewn chair. The shotgun lay at his feet on the uneven floorboards. His head had been obliterated by the force of the double-barreled blast and splattered against the sandy plaster of the wall. Brains, skull fragments, and black blood had flash frozen into a strange wallflower. It bloomed from the victim’s pale neck like a violent pastiche of modern art. The corpse’s shoulders slumped forward in an imitation of petals, but his torso remained upright. It had been very cold when he died.
Kwalchuk inspected a small table at the center of the room. A monthly calendar open to January. A fixed blade skinning knife, its tip driven deep into the table’s surface. An unopened, frozen can of peaches. The calendar was blank. And more than a decade old. From his jacket pocket, Kwalchuk withdrew a pen and pushed the calendar aside. Beneath it, carved deep into the table’s grain, were the words, “Let there be no whispering no secrets here.” He exited the cabin.
Outside, the subarctic glare momentarily blinded him. Melting snow dripped from the cabin’s eaves, from the tree branches, the shed’s roof, the bones of the canoe. Plink plink plink plonk plink. Ice water dripped inside delicate birch bark, bulging the papery skin like a human vein as it seeped towards the ground.
Kwalchuk left the biologists to extinguish their fire. He followed a trail down to the river. The Yukon was nearly half a mile wide at this place and flowed around a small island. Near shore, two thick plates of ice converged. The pressure applied by the spring thaw lifted one slab skyward and drove the other down. From shore to shore, the river ice cracked and popped as it buckled under the force of the current. At times, it seemed to detonate with the force of dynamite. Breakup had come a little early this year. The entire river would be ice free in two weeks’ time.
In the deeper water of the channel, huge galleons of ice sailed the quickening current. They moved like enormous parade floats. Atop a hummock of ice the size of a gold dredge stood a large, gray timber wolf. The animal regarded him dispassionately as it passed and made no movement, but for its yellow eyes, which soon focused downriver. Just a thousand more miles to the Bering Sea.
Kwalchuk returned to his snowmachine. The fire was out. Two sets of snowshoe tracks disappeared into the woods. Once he’d made sure the cabin door was closed tight and could not be easily opened, Kwalchuk called in the incident and began the long ride home. The spring light was fading to the west, casting long shadows across his tracks.
Ryan Masters is a writer and poet from Santa Cruz, CA. His collection of fiction, Above an Abyss: Two Novellas (Radial Books, 2018), is available at Bookshop Santa Cruz. Masters spent a decade on staff at the Santa Cruz Sentinel and The Monterey County Weekly. He is a frequent contributor to The Surfer's Journal and former poet-in-residence for the City of Pacific Grove, CA. He is also the author of a chapbook, below the low-water mark. His work has appeared in publications such as The Iowa Review, Catamaran Literary Reader and Unlikely Stories. For more, visit www.ryanmasters831.com.