Williwaw!by Tom Bodett
"Bodett, the genial voice in those Motel 6 commercials, offers a page-turner set in the wilds of Alaska, and he clearly knows the taste of sea and storm, the face of the landscape, and the sound of the loons and the scent of salmon. In this sentimental but rousing tale, September Crane, 13, and her 12-year-old brother, Ivan, are often left to themselves while… See more details below
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"Bodett, the genial voice in those Motel 6 commercials, offers a page-turner set in the wilds of Alaska, and he clearly knows the taste of sea and storm, the face of the landscape, and the sound of the loons and the scent of salmon. In this sentimental but rousing tale, September Crane, 13, and her 12-year-old brother, Ivan, are often left to themselves while their father fishes for their living. . . . Bodett interweaves the story of the williwaw, a wild storm that took their mother's life and family boat, with a spiraling series of bad choices. . . . Along the way, we learn about boat safety, respect for the sea, and self-sufficiency in a desolate but splendid place. . . . The weather's majesty and power are convincing, and the sister and brother are appealing characters . . . [with] very recognizable adolescent longings."
Read an Excerpt
The morning fog was dense. So dense it felt almost heavy on Ivan's and September's heads as they made their careful way across the cove in the Aunt Nelda. Their world was cloaked so completely they hadn't been able to see the cabin from their own dock, and they'd lost sight of that too as soon as they'd shoved off. The stillness bordered on deadnessblack water as shiny as a waxed table and no sound but the dull rattle of the oarlocks.
They knew Mooseburger's cabin was due west of theirs and the butter clam bed a little south of that. September sat in the stern holding a hand compass between them so that Ivan could watch their bearing as he rowed the short way over.
"I've never seen it this thick," he said, staring into a mist so formless that his eyes could find no focus.
September blinked away the same effect. "Me either. Everything seems so differentlike we're not even real." She checked their heading again and was about to suggest a correction when the dory nudged quietly onto a soft bottom and swung to a stop.
"Weird," she said, and stepped over the side into a few inches of water. Paying careful attention to the depth of the water as she circled the boat, September came to the conclusion that they were not on a bar but on Mooseburger's mud flatexactly where they wanted to be. "Let's go find Dad's butter clams."
Ivan climbed out with a bucket. He uncoiled the bowline and then followed September slowly into the murk. After only a few steps they found dry ground and the welcome sight of clams spitting all around their feet. "Good navigating," Ivan said.
"Hard to get lost in Steamer Cove." September smiled and leaned into the familiar smells and motions.
The scrape of their rakes and the clatter of clams hitting the empty bucket seemed a grating intrusion in the quiet mist. September felt self-conscious about it, knowing Mr. Berger was not far off. "Did you hear something, Ivan?" she asked.
Ivan stopped and listened. "Nowaitcould it be? Yes...the sound of a video game. A video game in my future..." A grin stretched his face, and he cupped a hand around one ear. "Hello? Tech Patrol?"
September wasn't amused. "Ivan, you have got a one-track mind. It was your game addiction that started all this trouble. Now we can't even see the boat on the end of the line in your hand and you're ready to head across the bay for another video fix."
Ivan looked panicked. "Sep! You promised if it wasn't blowing we'd go. It's flat as a board out there. We've gone all the way to town by compass before!"
September held up her hands. "Okay, okay! Stop whining. We'll go. We have to. But remember, we're going to get the radios first of all. We'll go to the Dockside only if we have the money, the time, and the coast is clear. Deal?"
"Deal," Ivan said, relieved.
September looked back into the fog. "It would be nice if this lifted a little."
Suddenly she seized on movement in the near distance. She worked her eyes around in their sockets, not sure if it was just a trick of the fog. But it still moved, slowly and deliberately, toward them. "Ivan, look!"
Ivan turned, and they both stood rock-still. They could hear the grind of boots in gravel and then the sucking sounds of the mud grabbing at footsteps. A dark blot turned suddenly human as it came out of the mist not ten steps away. Mr. Berger, his black wool coat with the hood pulled around his face against the damp chill, stood wide-legged in his hip boots with a rifle cradled across his chest.
September went nearly faint with this picture out of her dream standing so close at hand. She even glanced around to see if the little bear was along before she refocused on the old man with the gun. He was no dream.
"Mr. Berger!" September blustered. "You scared us!"
"So it's you two!" Berger stood firm in the mud. "You're lucky I didn't shoot you! What are you wild coyotes up to sneaking around my property?" he asked.
The scowling old man cast a hard look at the partially filled bucket. "So that's it! Stealing clams under the cover of the fog!" he accused them.
"We didn't mean to!" Ivan said, forgetting in his fear that nobody owns the tide flats and the clams belong to everybody. "We just wanted to get some butter clams to can for our dad before he gets home."
September tried to nudge her brother, but it was too late. Berger screwed his head to one side and looked back at them with new suspicion. "I've been wondering if that father of yours was ever coming back." A satisfied grin revealed a mouthful of brown mottled teeth. "I've been wondering if I ought to go talk to somebody in town about the situation out here."
"No!" September blurted more loudly than she'd meant to. "I mean, there's no need. We're fine, and besides, our dad is coming home today." She knocked Ivan with her knee. "We're going to pick him up as soon as we're done with these clamsright, Ivan?"
Ivan's face quizzed his sister and she drilled him with a look. "Ummthat's right, Mr. Berger. Dad's coming in from Dutch Harbor on the two-thirty plane." Ivan glanced around. "I guess we better get moving if we're going to make it in time."
September grabbed up the bucket. "That's right. It'll be slow going in this stuff." She started backing away, and after giving a little tug to Ivan's jacket, her brother followed.
Mr. Berger screwed his head over even farther and looked as mean as a mink in a live trap. "I'll tell you wild brats one thing! If that so-called father of yours ain't back here today to keep you out of my hair, I'm going to the authorities!" He raised the rifle and laid it back over his shoulder as September and Ivan receded into the mist. "You hear me. Flame-baked hooligans! The authorities!"
"Yes sir. He'll be here!" September walked backward right into the Aunt Nelda and fell over into the bottom. "Push off, Ivan!" she commanded before she even got herself upright.
"I'm pushing! I'm pushing!"
As soon as the dory floated free of the mud, September was on the oars digging at the water. Ivan grabbed the compass. The instrument's needle stabilized. "That way, Sep!" he said, and pointed. "That's the way back!"
They made the distance home in less time than it took them to sort through all the implications of their meeting with Berger. As the Aunt Nelda knocked against their dock, Ivan climbed out and tied the dory off.
"Why'd you tell him Dad was coming home today, Sep?"
September stepped onto the dock, her heart still pounding from the experience. "I had to! You heard what he said!"
Ivan started up the dock squinting into the mist toward the cabin. "I know, and if Mooseburger calls the state people while Dad's gone, they'll have no choice but to take us away," he said. "But what's going to happen when he finds out Dad isn't coming home today and we lied?"
September stopped short as she looked at the porch. She seized Ivan by the hand. "Ivan what's that?"
Ivan looked ahead and saw it toosomething, or someone, was standing against one of the support posts. Then his eyes saw through the illusion of fog.
"Oh, that's just Dad's old coverall hanging up there. I guess Berger's got us both spooked." Ivan continued walking.
"I'll say." September followed her brother onto the porch and fingered the sleeve of the coverall as if to make sure it was empty. "And he's going to get us in big trouble when Dad doesn't show up today. Maybe I shouldn't have said that to Mr. Berger."
"Wait a minute," Ivan said, leaning against the railing. "What if Dad does show up?"
"And what if fish could walk?" September quipped.
"I don't mean really show up. Just if ol' Mooseburger thought he did?"
Intrigued, September let go of the coverall and sat down beside Ivan. "What are you thinking?"
Before he spoke, Ivan studied the cobwebs in the rafters above his head as if that's where his thoughts were. "How would Berger know if Dad is with us or not when we come back from town today?"
"He'll either be with us or he won't," September said impatiently.
"Will Berger come over and talk to him?" he quizzed.
"Of course not. He never does."
"Then how will he know?"
September grew exasperated. "He'll see him! I mean, he won't see him!"
"That's exactly right!" Ivan said with a cagey grin. "He'll see him and he won't see him. Ol' Mooseburger can't see much better than we can see right now in this fog. So what if we made something that looked like Dad and brought it home in the boat with us today?"
He slid from the railing, grabbed the worn coverall from its hook, and held it up as if modeling a dress. "If you thought this was someone standing on the porch, what do you think this would look like to a half-blind old Mooseburger?"
September now grasped what Ivan was thinking. She cocked one eye at the dirty work suit being dragged along the porch like a starved scarecrow. "One coverall doesn't make a dad. What will fill it out? And what about a head?" she asked skeptically.
"Details. Simply details." Ivan dramatically laid the thing over the seat of the generator bike and considered it. "All we gotta do is stuff it full of something..."
"We could use leaves, no, I knowsawdust!" September cried. "We go right past the mill in town. We'll go over where it spills out by the loading dock and fill it!"
"Perfect!" Ivan said, happy to see his serious-minded sister getting into the swing of it. "And for a head we can cram one of those smaller crab-pot buoys down the neck hole and tie a nor'easter over that." Ivan took one of the floppy heavy weather rain hats from their pile of boat gear and held it over the coverall.
September eyed the effect suspiciously. "How long do you think this will keep Mr. Berger off our backs?"
"Long enough," Ivan said, and then peered into the fog. "Or at least as long as ol' Mooseburger stays on his side of the cove."
The week's clam harvest had been kept alive in burlap bags hanging from the end of the dock. While Ivan gathered them together, September ran to the cabin and grabbed herself a snack of smoked salmon on dried bread. She scarfed it, then quickly made another to take to Ivan.
"Something for the ride," she said, handing over the sandwich and looking out to the bay. "This fog hasn't thinned one bit. It's going to take forever to get to townover an hour, probably." Ivan munched and watched his sister check the fuel line to the motor. "How's our gas situation?"
September hefted the can currently in use. "We'll get there on what's left of this can. Three times across, as always. The other can is full but we have to get fuel today and replace what we've used."
"We'll have plenty of money." Ivan wiped his hands on his pants then lowered the last of the clams into the boat. "We'll have money for a lot of things."
Ivan had a familiar look in his eye and September shook her head. "Ivan, you are going to get video-game poisoning one day."
"What a way to go," he said, smiling.
Ivan decided not to argue over who steered the skiff. Since it would be such a monotonous ride in the fog anyway, he'd rather wait his turn for the way back when it all might be cleared. Looking straight up he could almost see blue sky.
September strained to see what she could as she steered the Four-O-Five out of the cove. It wouldn't take long for the fog to burn off or blow away, but in the meantime she couldn't see thirty feet. Luckily the tide was flooding hard and left patterns in the water where the rocks lay. Once clear of the point she took their regular compass heading, checked the time, and sped up to about half throttle. With the bay so calm it was tempting to go faster, but without being able to see what might be in the water ahead she remained, as ever, on the better side of caution. "Bag Bay loves overconfident skippers," Dad had said a thousand times. "It eats them for lunch."
"Keep your eyes out for logs, Ivan!" she said.
In an hour's time the only change in the monotony of fog and flat water was a swath of gunk caught in a tide rip, which September slowed to pass through. She knew an oozy-looking collection of sticks, loose kelp, and trash could be hiding submerged logs that would do considerable damage to a boat and motor if hit at any speed.
When they were past the danger, September resumed her previous course and speed. She looked again at the compass. Thirty-three degrees north northeast for one hour. She looked at her wristwatch. We should be close, she thought.
September also found herself thinking that the town kids would still be in school at this hour on a Thursday, and this gave her a surprising stab of disappointment. Although she would never admit it to her brother, she had been looking forward to this strange TC kid being nice to her right out in front of the townie girls again. She'd already recalled the scene a dozen times.
September smiled at the memory but swallowed it away when she saw Ivan impatiently looking at her from the bow. He pointed at his wrist for the time, and it was with horror September saw that twenty more minutes had passed on her watch with no town in sight. She slowed the motor to an idle and dropped it out of gear. The two of them and their boatful of clams bobbed as the wake of the Four-O-Five overtook them.
"Uh-oh." Ivan stood up and looked hard into the vapor surrounding them.
September checked the compass and pointed. "That's where we should have seen it by now."
"Are you sure you stayed on course?" Ivan wasn't accusing. He'd steered in the fog enough times to know that as soon as you looked away from the compass even the most seasoned boat handler could veer off-course.
September flushed and admitted, "I wasn't paying attention for a while there. I might have drifted."
"Which way?" Ivan couldn't keep the concern out of his voice. Missing the harbor to the east would bring them harmlessly down that shore by the sawmill, which they could follow back to the harbor. But missing to the west meant bypassing the point and heading straight out into the open waters leading to the Gulf of Alaska.
Both of them knew the best thing they could possibly do was nothing. Guessing would be the worst. They could be a hundred feet from the beach on the other side of town, or in a six-hundred-foot-deep subarctic sea with roaming cargo ships and oil tankers. Until they knew on which side of the point they were, the compass was nearly uselessonly good for taking a bearing once they saw or heard something that they could follow to safety. Neither of them said a word. Their best chance was to hear a honking car horn or the clank of heavy machinery at the mill, and they would have to stay silent to catch it. Another boat might happen by on its way to who knows where, but unless they could get its attention, it would be no use to them. September opened the toolbox and put the signal-flare pistol on the seat beside her. Ivan relaxed a little. Although neither would say it, both of them feared the being run down by a larger boat or a tanker out in the big water. It would have been easier to hear without the idling motor, but they couldn't take the chance of being dead in the water and unable to dodge an approaching vessel.
Ivan suddenly pointed to something off their right sidecoming straight toward them. With nothing to reference the dark shape against, it could be a deep-sea trawler a quarter mile away or a large duck within a clam's throw.
"An otter." September finally breathed. "it's just an otter with her young one."
Ivan could see it now too. A sea otter paddled along on her back with her arms wrapped around her baby. As soon as September spoke, the otter started a slow curve out of the way. She and her little one swam from view leaving a tiny V-shaped wake and never taking her eyes from the odd pair of creatures in the skiff.
No sooner had the otter gone than a black and white torpedo at least the size of the Four-O-Five burst into view with a rush of wind.
"Orca!" Ivan screamed. September jumped.
The long curved dorsal fin cut beneath the looking-glass bay and...
Orcas often took several breaths before diving again so they waited to hear another blow from the whale. But none ever came.
The ripples from the whale's grand appearance made chuckling sounds against the bottom of the skiff. Ivan felt the boat swinging around then sensed movement across his face.
"A breeze, Sep. Look!" The mist was clearly in motion, scudding soundlessly across the water. The lightweight skiff began to move with it. The breeze would be sure to push the fog out but was of no immediate help.
"It's from the east," September said, brightening as she looked up from the compass. An east wind was most likely coming off the glacier in the mountains behind town, which meant they were probably still inside the bay. But then again, maybe not. If they were already beyond the point and headed east, they wouldn't find shore until the steep cliffs of Rocky Point way up by Port Vixen. They would certainly run out of gas in both tanks before then.
Ivan read her mind. "Wanna guess and go?"
"No way." September pulled her hat down over her ears. "Dad says guesses make messes."
Ivan silently agreed and kept his face to the breeze. Come on, give me somethinganything, he thought. He sniffed at the air and his nostrils flared. What? Could it be? He took a long, deep pull.... "Yesss!" He pointed into the wind, laughing. "Town ahoy!"
September tried to see. "Where? Where?"
"Don't look! Smell! I can smell it!" Ivan threw his head back and breathed in with exaggerated delight.
September looked doubtful but followed her brother's lead and sniffed generally around in the air. Sure enough, there was something. What was that smell?
"French fries!" Ivan spoke before she could place it. "Greasy Dockside French fries dead ahead!"
It was good enough to go on. September pointed the skiff into the breeze and took a compass heading while Ivan leaned over the bow sniffing like a dog out a car window and singing.
"East wind blows you side to side and sometimes even smells like fries!"
They had gone only a few hundred feet this way when the motor sputtered. Ivan hushed. September shook the gas can at her feet.
"Empty!" she called, working the throttle back and forth to milk what fuel she could from the line.
Ivan jumped to the back of the boat and tried to change the cans before the motor quit, but it was too late. The outboard coughed twice, rattled once, then fell silent as they coasted into the fog.
Clipping the gas line to the new tank, Ivan apologized. "Sorry, Sep. Missed it."
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