Bear Down, Bear North

Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories

Melinda Moustakis
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 144
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  • Book Info
    Bear Down, Bear North
    Book Description:

    In her debut collection, Melinda Moustakis brings to life a rough-and-tumble family of Alaskan homesteaders through a series of linked stories. Born in Alaska herself to a family with a homesteading legacy, Moustakis examines the near-mythological accounts of the Alaskan wilderness that are her inheritance and probes the question of what it means to live up to larger-than-life expectations for toughness and survival. The characters in Bear Down, Bear North are salt-tongued fishermen, fisherwomen, and hunters, scrappy storytellers who put themselves in the path of destruction-sometimes a harsh snowstorm, sometimes each other-and live to tell the tale. While backtrolling for kings on the Kenai River or filleting the catch of the Halibut Hellion with marvelous speed, these characters recount the gamble they took that didn't pay off, or they expound on how not only does Uncle Too-Soon need a girlfriend, the whole state of Alaska needs a girlfriend. A story like "The Mannequin at Soldotna" takes snapshots: a doctor tends to an injured fisherman, a man covets another man's green fishing lure, a girl is found in the river with a bullet in her head. Another story offers an easy moment with a difficult mother, when she reaches out to touch a breaching whale. This is a book about taking a fishhook in the eye, about drinking cranberry lick and Jippers and smoking Big-Z cigars. This is a book about the one good joke, or the one night lit up with stars, that might get you through the winter.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-4189-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-2)

    You were conceived on a hunting stand, they say.

    Which means: We had no other place.

    The homestead is full of my mother’s siblings. On the stove, a pot of potato chow big enough to feed twenty. See my mother, back roughed against the wooden platform in the trees. See my father, finger on the trigger—in case.

    You have to gut a moose right away, they say, or the meat rots in its skin.

    Which means: We couldn’t keep our hands off each other.

    The night of my making, my father shot a moose through the eye, through the...

    (pp. 3-16)

    She stands in the lobby of the hospital, naked. Lures and spinners and spoons and flesh flies and fish hooks cover her body. There are metallic wings and blades, mirrored and speckled jangles, feathers, fur, hair, painted beads in bright gloried purples and reds and yellows all to catch a rainbow, a dolly, a red, a king in the Kenai River.

    Someone comes in with a hook in a nose or lip or neck or hand. The doctor shakes her head. The hook digs deep and pulls, the barb snagging muscle, and she pushes it through. The patient sighs with...

    (pp. 17-32)

    Your fishing pole slams and you jump up and yank the rod out of the holder.

    “Easy,” Jack says. “Wait for him to take it.” Another tug and he’s yelling, “Set that sonofabitch,” as you pull up to set the hook and reel in and pull up again—a double set.

    “Fish On. Fish On,” you shout.

    “She’s got a Fish On,” he calls out to the rest of the river. He holds up the net, the signal for “We’ve got a king on our line—get the hell out of the way.” A few boats give you space, but...

  7. US KIDS
    (pp. 33-42)

    Us kids smile and wave good riddance when Fox and Uncle Sly roll out one way and we roll another, bruised butts in the seats. We’re piled into Big Mary, our station wagon that barely fits us all in and is a miracle for starting up. We’re packed in with a huge pot full of frozen moose meat and whatever we have to eat in the back along with a jumbleball of afghans Polar Bear is always knitting. Fox and Uncle Sly go hunting at the homestead and Polar Bear drives us to see Aunt Sheila and Jack and Gracie,...

    (pp. 43-52)

    She’s nineteen years old and pregnant. She’s nineteen years old and pregnant with me and waiting at the bus stop and it’s fifty below in Fairbanks.

    One of these times, she rides the bus to a job interview for a secretarial position. She and my father had twenty-three dollars to their name. “They wanted me to do a typing test,” she says. “So right there I chewed off my fingernails—every one. I spit them into the trash can while the lady in the suit watched.”

    Now she keeps her nails long, just past elegant, and paints them blood-red to...

    (pp. 53-64)

    In the woods of the homestead. On my back. Snow falls and hills on me. Here it’s like when I close my eyes and hold my breath in the tub. No one finds me in the snow. No one tells me to chop wood, to pick up rocks, to check the traps. No one points to their lips, moves them slow, right in front of my face. And then the whole wide ground goes slap-punch under me. I run to the cabin. Ben is there. A plane, he says. He makes his hand into a plane, flies it across his...

    (pp. 65-80)

    Your sister-in-law Jean calls you because Jack has been gone for too long—one night she can understand, one night means he’s passed out drunk at Good Time Charlie’s or at his buddy Butch’s or Chako’s again and he always comes stumbling back, either by himself or because you’ve gone and driven him home. He’s never been gone past noon the next day, and she knows this is your day off and the roads are bad, but he’s probably dead and she has to keep pretending for the kids and, “You have to find him, Gracie. You have to find...

  11. BITE
    (pp. 81-88)

    Polar Bear is in bed or she’s tearing through the kitchen, eating and eating. Us kids find her scooping handfuls of flour into her mouth, the bag ripped open, white caked in the corners of her lips, white dust in her hair. She bites into raw potatoes, the earthworn skin and eyes, like they were apples. She sucks on woodchips she picks out from the bottom of the firebin, rolling them in her mouth until they are soft, her cheek bulging with the wet-splinter ball.

    Polar Bear’s stomach is big. She was sick and then she was better, and then...

    (pp. 89-106)

    Ruby opens the pen and Sitka stands up on his hind legs, puts his paws on her shoulders as if to say listen, listen closely and she, not expecting this greeting, falls on her back. He hovers over her, licking her face, the warmth of his breathing a comfort, but anyone watching from a distance would think she was being mauled. She doesn’t fight or flinch or shield herself with her gloved hands—she doesn’t move. Sitka nudges her with his nose. Ruby stays still, the snow sinking beneath her. He growls and tugs on her blue scarf with his...

    (pp. 107-124)

    Eddie thinks Spook is still alive and so do I. She can’t be dead. People like her never die, they drink Jippers and smoke Big-Z cigars every day and they outlive all the Quiet Marys of the world. She’d say to me, “Listen, Puppygal, you’re good enough for the both of us. I’m going straight up to that heave-ho in the sky just for knowing you.”

    Ma is the one who made Mutts hire Spook. Captain Mutts, that’s my dad, who I call Mutts, and Ma calls him Captain Mutts, though she’s the one who drives our boat, the Halibut...

    (pp. 125-136)

    A river loses strength, loses water. Scientists catch the humpies and put them into tanks and drive to the Kenai River. The humpies are released near the mouth when the reds are running. The humpies don’t know where to go—they don’t know the Kenai and they don’t follow the reds. They don’t recognize the currents of the river, or the smells, or the way the light refracts into the water and bounces off the bottom. The reds run up while the dead humpies float down. They die because they have the wrong memories.

    A woman with long, dark hair...

    (pp. 137-146)

    In my deep swimming dreams, my mother tells me I can’t come home. Not for the things I have done, but for the things I haven’t. There’s a story she tells about my grandfather, Fox, leaving her at a hunting stand miles away from the homestead, alone, in the dark, when she was eight. No lantern or light in late September. “Colleen, you’re the oldest,” he says. “Find your way.” She has a rifle. Behind every tree, another tree, another shadow, or a bear. The woods so thick. No stars to follow.

    “If anyone tells you to cut your hair,”...

    (pp. 147-156)

    You check the choke on the chainsaw. Pull the starter cord. The engine is warm, but sputters. You pull again and the engine floods. Turn the choke and throttle off. Pump the cord several times. Move the choke. Pull the cord three times. You wait, pull again. There’s a buzz. Then everything dies. You fall away from each other.

    “We could try other things,” you say.

    “It’s no use,” Hyde says. He doesn’t know you’ve made him a doctor’s appointment for next week.

    “I’m going crazy,” you say. You’ve been noticing how everything else in the world is tall and...

    (pp. 157-159)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 160-161)