Hailed by reviewers from coast to coast, True North marked the exhilarating debut of Kim Kafka's writing career. Now Kafka takes us to another captivating corner of the world, as seen through the eyes of a remarkable young mother named Miranda Perry.
Miranda has risen to the top of San Francisco's competitive culinary world, and investors are willing to help her launch her own restaurant. She is also a successful single parent, building an endearing relationship with her little boy, Ruben. But her life suddenly takes a different turn when she learns that her father has died, leaving the family vineyard to Miranda. Returning to Oregon, she leaves city life behind her. An adventuresome lifelong friend, Bridie, soon joins Miranda in Oregon after sustaining a debilitating injury. By returning to their roots, both women find unforeseen healing and hope, while helping each other through the challenges of accepting fate.
Lyrical yet explicitly perceptive, Miranda's Vines weaves an unforgettable portrait of survival-both physical and emotional-with the rich textures of vineyard life. This stirring combination is sure to take Kim Kafka's profile to new heights.
|Publisher:||Penguin Group (USA)|
|Product dimensions:||5.44(w) x 8.14(h) x 0.61(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Miranda Perry came into the Willamette Valley from the coast road. She'd gotten off the I-5 as soon as she crossed into Oregon because Ruben had lobbied hard to see the ocean. The fact that the Pacific was the same here as it was in California meant nothing to her six-year-old, so she'd taken the longer route without argument to tell the truth, it did seem different here. The swells heaved in more lucid shades of gray and green and blue.
But Ruben fell asleep before they were out of Grants Pass, and he hadn't been awakened even by six calls to her cell phone from the restaurant. The first five had been from her sous chef, who hadn't gained much confidence in the three months he'd worked for her. Her boss, the executive chef, was the sixth call. Eric wanted to let her know he'd booked a party of twenty banking executives for the following week, and that he'd arrange the menu. The purpose of the call was, of course, to cement the fact that she had only one week off, and he'd groused royally about giving her that, as if late February were their busy season.
Fuming at Eric kept her mind occupied while Ruben was asleep, so she wouldn't have to think about why she was going home. When she'd tried to explain it to Ruben, she had not been able to say it outright. She meant to spare him his first introduction to death, but really it was herself she meant to spare; if she tried to take in the scope of the world without her father in it, her hands shook and her mouth filled with tart secretions as if she were going to vomit.
Carter Perry hadn't seen his grandson in three years. She'd meant to take time off for another trip home since then, but the timing was neverright. Eric wanted a renovation of the house space to accommodate more tables, which meant additional diners, which meant hiring more kitchen staff, who needed to be trained.
In the middle of all that, investors had approached her about starting a restaurant of her own. She had achieved some cachet as the chef de cuisine at a top-notch restaurant in San Francisco. Winning the James Beard Award two years ago didn't hurt, either. When the investors asked her what she would do to make her restaurant different and she knew they meant marketable she'd tried to explain the ancient art of Shojin cooking, elegant in its simplicity and simple in its intentions: to perfectly aid the mind and body in their struggle to survive and flourish.
Miranda insisted on and knew how to choose quality, cleanly grown ingredients. She knew it mattered, because when she plated the homeliest dish imaginable smothered pork chops with Indian-spiced mashed sweet potatoes she had chosen the hog from a farmer she knew and trusted, had helped weed the sweet potatoes, mixed the garam masala herself. She knew again how much it mattered when she served the dish to one of her regulars, a gourmet of some repute, and watched his face pink with pleasure while his eyes closed. It was the face of an infant at its mother's breast, it was what the Japanese called umame, the taste of life. The investors stared at her blankly, but her enthusiasm did not go unnoticed. They came back for a second look.
And she deserved that look. In twelve years, she'd worked her way up from prep cook, her hands aching and cut and burned because, contrary to the going notions, there were no secrets, no shortcuts. You needed good knives, strong technique, and the ability to concentrate on as well as orchestrate a situation that gravitated toward chaos.
Beyond the work, she'd suffered her share of agony along the way. She looked over at Ruben and resisted the urge to smooth the dark sprigs of hair that lay matted on his forehead. In sleep he looked so much like his father, it keened a grief she thought had dulled after six years.
She'd meant to go on up the coast to Wheeler and cut through the state forest so Ruben could see the Coastals, but she remembered how heavily logged they were now, and she did not want Ruben to see the mountains shaved and raw in the winter-gray afternoon. So she'd turned inland toward the WillametteValley at the Salmon River and headed for McMinnville. From there, she'd cut over to Dundee, and then it was only minutes to the vineyard, to home.
As if an inner compass informed him of the change, Ruben's head rolled upright, and he stubbed his fists in his eyes. Where's the ocean, Mom?
You missed it, sleepyhead. We're following the Salmon River now.
He pushed against his seat belt, fully alert, as if three hours had not just passed in sleep. I wanna see the sammin.
There aren't many salmon left, Ru. Besides, they're out in the ocean now, growing up.
Let's see the ocean.
It's the other way, honey. But we'll come back this way when we go back to San Francisco. We'll see it then.
As if some pheromone spray alerted her seconds before it happened, she was ready when he pressed his back to the seat and wailed.
Sweetie, I'm sorry, but we've got to get home. And thought it odd as she said it. She'd lived in San Francisco for twelve years but still called Oregon home.
But you said we're goin' to Papa's.
She didn't think she had it in her to explain right then the difference between home where she'd grown up and the home that he knew in the city, so she just said, That's right. We're going to Papa's.
She drove on for ten minutes, Ruben sobbing so hard he choked himself, until she stopped the car at a pullout by the river and grabbed her tote bag from the backseat. She smeared some cream cheese on a slice of cherry bread, her eyes appreciating the texture of bread risen with real starter instead of with commercial yeast. She cut it into quarters on the dashboard and coaxed Ruben through the first three bites. He chewed and sobbed at first, then ceased vocalizing and chewed with only his eyes leaking, until he was well into the last bit of sandwich.
She watched the river through the window, tried to get Ruben to focus on the water. When he finished the sandwich, she watered down some pear juice and gave it to him. He drank, his throat convulsing in great throbs.
She smoothed his hair. Better?
He nodded, staring at the river as it foamed past them.
Do you miss your school? she asked.
He shook his head. He'd just started kindergarten that fall, and so far he had not been happy about it. It was hard for him to make friends, and she knew this was her fault. It was difficult for her to schedule playtime for him with other kids, because her work hours were out of sync with the nine-to-fivers. If she managed to make a playdate, she couldn't follow up on a regular basis. So most of the people Ruben knew were grown-ups, coworkers at the restaurant where he ended up spending a lot of time if she couldn't get a sitter.
She passed the miles to McMinnville pointing out hawks in the trees. She explained to him how they liked to perch there and wait for things to eat.
Like what? he wanted to know.
They taste wonderful to a hawk, she said.
Probably because they're juicy and crunchy.
Not to a hawk.
When they got to McMinnville, she had to tell him they were just changing roads to get to Dundee.
That's our town, she said. The closest to home, anyway. Do you remember the name of Papa's vineyard?
What's a vineyard? he asked.
It's a farm where they grow grapes to make wine. Papa's vineyard is called Perry Hill.
Is it our farm?
It's Papa's, she said.
As they drove past various places she'd taken him on their last visit, she asked if he remembered it, but he always shook his head. She thought if something joggled his memory, he might remember being with Papa, who'd held the boy close to his long, flat chest, his pale blue eyes creased by a smile. It had made her feel accomplished, the smile his response to a gift of incomparable perfection.
When she finally pulled into the driveway, she watched the boy's face, certain the old white farmhouse with hickories hovering over the roof would have etched a groove on the smooth contours of his mind.
He waited for her as she loaded her arms with luggage from the back of their old blue Toyota. She stumbled up the steps and prompted Ruben to open the door for her. He held out his hand for her keys, and she had to laugh. Most of his cognizant life had consisted of locked doors and directions for when it was okay or not to open them.
There aren't any keys, sweetie.
How we gonna get in?
Things are a little different here, Ru. It's not like in the city.
She showed him his room, which was really her old room. She'd slept there with him the last time they'd visited. She thought there'd be housework, but the beds were already made, age-thinned chenille spreads arranged just so. Of course, Petra and Madrita would have come in and cleaned the house. She put Ruben's backpack on his bed, and he sat down next to it.
While I put the rest of the things away, would you please unpack your clothes and put them in the dresser?
He swung his feet against the bed frame.
It'll give you something to do until the surprise gets here.
If I tell you, it won't be a surpise.
She went back to the kitchen and stood on the cracked linoleum, stared at the bare half-moon of space in front of the sink worn away by her feet and Papa's. One hundred and fifty years of life in this spot, on this land, was a lot to get organized in one week. She'd asked Eric for two weeks off, knowing it was a stretch, but his face told her she'd be lucky to get one. There was no job protection in the food industry, no matter how many awards she'd won. You cooked or were cooked; there was always someone to take your place, always more ideas.
She turned quickly to the packages she'd set on the table and started to unpack the perishables, then stowed other things in the cupboards, before hauling her suitcase upstairs to Papa's room.
It was as she remembered it only for once the bed was made. On the nightstand was the familiar picture. He'd kept it there in the stubborn belief that what it portrayed still existed, ever existed. Papa held Miranda in her white christening gown, her baby hair as bleached as Papa's had been. He looked happy, doting even, as he had when he'd held Ruben. And next to them stood Miranda's mother, whose small, dark eyes and hair repelled the light that emanated from the two next to her, who looked so young in the photo, she could have been Papa's daughter.
Papa had told her at first that her mother was dead. Later, when Miranda was in junior high school, Petra told her that if she wanted to know about her mother, she should ask her father. Papa had been angry at Petra for bringing it up. There's nothing to be gained. Leave it be, goddamnit. It was the only time she'd ever heard her father swear, and the subject was not raised again. Miranda could have insisted. Instead she told her father that she didn't care, because she was certain then that she didn't.
Miranda stared at the woman's face, but recognized nothing of herself in it. She pulled open the nightstand drawer and lay the picture inside it, then felt as if she were faulting Papa and set it on the table again as it had been.
She opened his closet to find a row of faded flannel shirts hanging there, swooped them into a soft bunch, and held them to her face. The familiar smell of him curled from the cloth until she could see him stooped in the vineyard, the red Jory soil of three generations ground indelibly into creased skin. She breathed in the apparition until her belly rounded tightly with it. Soon, even that bit of him would be gone.
Ruben called her, and when she heard him tapping up the steep staircase, she let the shirts fall away from her and pushed the bifold doors shut. She took her son's hand and led him onto the balcony off Papa's room. Papa had spent his evenings there, sucking on the one pipeful he allowed himself a day. From there, he could see the full sweep of the vineyard. The elevation gave him a good overview of the vines, told him which ones lacked vigor and needed a little care, which block would likely want harvesting first. He liked to see their orderly progression, canes and shoots trained to the three-wire trellis for maximum exposure to light and air. To the south, her eyes traveled in soothing arcs across fields of wheat and meadow foam; huge tracts of seed grass moved in smoky undulations across the valley floor.
Which ones are ours? Ruben asked.
She pointed out the line of trees farther up the hill that separated Perry Hill from its neighboring vineyard, Ruby Throat. All the vines between those trees and here all those are Papa's. All the land beyond those trees used to be Papa's, too, but he sold it to Petra and Ernest. See that house way up there? I spent a lot of time up there when I was a kid. That's where Petra lives. She calls their vineyard Ruby Throat. We'll have Papa's party there tomorrow.
You said it was a farm, Mom. Farms are flat. Grape farms are different, she said. They need to be on a hill so they all get sun. And when it rains, the extra water drains off so the vines don't stand around in puddles. Grapes don't like wet feet.
She heard the gravel crunching in the driveway out front, and looked at Ruben, her eyes wide. I wonder who that is, Ru.
She let herself be dragged downstairs, where they could hear a car door thumping shut outside.
He stopped in the middle of the kitchen. Whosit, Mom? he whispered.
I think it's the surprise, she said.
He clutched at her hand with both of his, and looked ready to cry.
It's okay, Ru. This is a good surprise.
He caught his breath, and when Miranda looked up, Bridie was there, pushing the door in with the nose of her duffel bag, her long auburn hair catching on the doorframe and causing her to laugh and drop her bag in order to disentangle herself. She almost swore but choked it back and laughed again. Ruben looked like he'd just seen Santa Claus, though he never threw himself at Santa as he did at Bridie, who'd freed herself in time to catch the boy and swing him onto her shoulders as if he weighed no more than a handbag.
And Miranda herself felt curiously weightless now, because here was the person who mattered most to her after Papa, Bridget Marie McLewan, Miranda's best friend and Ruben's godmother, the person she'd trust to raise her own son were she incapable of it.
Bridie swung Ruben down to her chest and held him to her, and Miranda saw on Bridie's face the look she'd remembered on Papa's, and again the pleasure of having given the perfect gift washed over her.
Ruben lifted Bridie's hair in sprays of dark red that drifted over him like a shawl. Where's the dogs? Ruben asked.
They're back in Alaska, Bridie said. And boy, are they rarin' to go.
When's the race?
Bridie set him down.
Can I come?
I wish you could, Bridie said. But you've got to learn about the dogs first. Start out slow.
Miranda cringed and gave Bridie the cut sign, but it was too late.
When can I get a dog? Ruben asked.
Well, honey, you never know. It may be soon. We'll have to see. She ruffled Ruben's hair and changed the subject. Right now, I need to give your mom a hug.
Puppy sandwich! he shrieked, and Bridie picked him up again so he could be squeezed between them.
Sorry, she whispered at Miranda.
I'm just glad you're here, Miranda said.
No way you'd go through this without me, Bridie said, and Miranda knew nothing could be more true.
Their friendship had been as unlikely as it seemed natural. While they'd both gone to Reed College in Portland, Miranda was a townie despite an hour commute each way and Bridie lived in the dorms. Bridie had come all the way from Michigan to go to Reed, because, she'd said, I've spent eighteen years in Apple Pie Land, and that's enough. She'd have gone to the university in Alaska, but the financial aid was better at private institutions, and even Oregon sounded pretty exotic to her after Flint, Michigan.
Miranda was in the tutor program, she needed the extra money, and she'd been assigned to Bridie in their sophomore year to help her with literature.
They spent three hours a week hunched over desks in Vollum Center, but something about Bridie's physical presence always made Miranda feel as if they had trekked great distances, made her feel everything was in motion. Bridie was funny and irreverent and completely unlike anyone Miranda knew, but what impressed Miranda most was that Bridie didn't expect Miranda to do the work for her; she meant to master something, whether it was her forte or not.
Miranda knew Bridie by then, at least in the way one knows the parameters of another's social behavior, so when Bridie failed to show up at a scheduled session midsemester, Miranda went looking for her.
The door to her dorm suite was open, but Miranda smelled the illness before she found Bridie curled tightly on the rumpled bed, her face protruding over the edge just enough to reach the small garbage can she'd placed there.
Wow, Bridie said when she saw her. Now that's dedication. But I don't feel much like literature just now. This flu's kicking my ass.
Something about Bridie's posture, the pain on her face, told Miranda it was more than flu. She'd seen it before, when Papa brought one of the workers in from the vineyard years ago.
Bridie was in the hospital for two days until the toxins from the burst appendix flushed from her system, and Miranda stayed with her. Friends from school showed up, along with a couple of the boyfriends, loud in their greetings, but eventually silent when they shuffled out. The Bridie they knew the six-foot-tall six-pack of energy and élan had disappeared as far as they could tell; they neglected to see that her vitality was merely damped down for the moment.
But that power was on full blast now, and Miranda let Ruben bask in it while she rummaged through the food she brought to make them a snack. Finally, she grated a couple of potatoes, arranged them into three mounds, fried the potatoes in peanut oil, then shredded smoked salmon over the cakes, spooned on sour cream. She sprinkled that with chives, and finished with a squeeze of lemon.
Bridie smeared her lips together. Remember the appendix thing? How you brought me back here and did nothing but cook for three days? I swear you shortened my recovery by a week.
You would have recovered faster than anyone with or without me. I think the change of pace, being out here, did more good than anything.
But I'd never eaten like that. I grew up on dry meat loaf and tuna noodle casserole. And here you were with lemon bread and halibut and all this shit I'd never even heard of.
Yeah, like fresh vegetables.
Like I said, meat loaf and tuna noodle casserole. Not that my parents could afford anything else.
Did you get the last of the food boxes I sent up? Miranda asked.
They're all distributed and waiting, Bridie said.
Miranda had taken on Bridie's food preparation for the race after Bridie explained in detail what her body underwent as a result of intense physical activity in extreme winter weather.
She'd sent Bridie little dark fruitcakes full of apricots, walnuts, and bacon bits, all soaked in Tokay wine. This year she'd also made a French rillettes, which was something like the deviled ham Bridie ate as a child but made with shredded pork roast and duck fat Miranda had rendered herself. She rolled the rillettes into little balls that Bridie could pop into her mouth, where they'd slowly soften from their frozen consistency enough to be chewed. The effect of the protein and high-quality fat in the scouring cold was like spinach to Popeye. She could go on and on. Other racers called Bridie the Tundra Gourmet, which was fine with Miranda. They could gum all the Doritos and M&M's they wanted; the results were clear.
Did Gordon give you a lot of grief for leaving right before the race? Miranda asked.
Bridie smiled and marched her fork across the empty plate. Grief and spleen and a few other things I won't mention in front of the child.
Bridie would be the first to admit it seemed crazy. She'd said as much to Gordon when she'd gotten the call from Miranda that Papa was dead.
Gordon had looked at her in that flat-eyed, black-and- white way of his and said, And you think you're going down there for the funeral?
I know I'm going, she'd said.
And you'll risk everything for a dead guy who won't know the difference?
It's not for him, I'm going. It's for her. She'll know the difference.
You don't think she'd understand?
That's not the point.
What is the fucking point?
It matters, she said.
Bridie thought of the time she'd asked Miranda about her mother's picture, asked if Miranda had any issues.
Over being abandoned.
I wasn't abandoned, Miranda had said. I've had more parents than any one has a right to. So Bridie had let it go.
But Gordon was still ranting. See, this is why women should never be in positions of power and responsibility.
This is a race, Gordon. Not the presidency.
You're right. And it's a hell of a lot more important.
When she'd started training with Gordon years ago, she knew in advance that he was a misanthrope, but she wasn't interested in his people skills. She was there to train under a four-time Iditarod champion who bred, raised, and trained racing dogs that were unparalleled in the sport, a man whose reputation for dog care was also unparalleled.
So whenever he cocked off on a rant, she tried to remember one of the many situations in which his actions told the better truth of his heart. Early in his racing career, he was running a puppy team of two-year-olds with his best lead dog, Zinc. The young dogs had lost heart in lousy weather and refused to run in spite of the lead dog's cue. As Gordon waited it out, Zinc fell ill with frightening rapidity. The dog's gums went pasty gray, and he would not eat or drink, a sign of internal bleeding. Unable to get the other dogs motivated, Gordon put them on their gang line and tied it off to a tree, strapped on his snowshoes, and carried Zinc five miles to the next checkpoint, where he could be flown to Anchorage. Surgery revealed a bleeding ulcer that would have killed the dog had it not been for Gordon's efforts.
Bridie thought of the story again as she ran the dogs that morning before heading for the airstrip and the twelve- seater jet that would take her to Anchorage. Her lead dog, Zeus, was from Zinc's line. Gordon had not seen any potential in the pup and intended to give him away as a pet until Bridie had convinced him to give Zeus to her. She had discovered the dog's bliss by accident, while training a yearling group. Often when running the young dogs in harness, she would stop and shuffle the order. Some ran better in certain positions than others; the idea was to figure out where each dog was most confident and comfortable. Zeus seemed lazy and uninterested, both in the kennel and in harness. He's so laid back, he's comatose, Gordon pointed out.
She'd shuffled the dogs on that training run until there was nothing left to try but putting Zeus in solo lead, and she'd thought, what the hell, the run was going badly anyway. She'd tried pairing him up front with a more motivated dog once before, but he'd lollygagged and sulked so much she'd put him farther back in the pack. This day, she put him in single lead and went back down the line, reshuffling. She'd thought the barking and lunging was from one of the other dogs up front, but when she turned, it was Zeus making the racket, his face wreathed in smile. It was what racers referred to as harness-banging, a primary indication of a dog's desire to run. He'd turn to her every two or three crowhops with that smile, his blue eyes blanched white by pure joy.
Over the next two years, he'd brought her in first on a five-hundred-mile qualifying race, second in a four-hundred- miler, and finally third in her first Iditarod, the brass ring of long-distance dog racing. Over eleven hundred miles of grueling trail from Anchorage to Nome in one of the worst weather years of the race's history Zeus never faltered in the lead. It was a tremendous strain on a dog's psyche to be in charge for that length of time, and typically racers put their leaders back in the team on easier stretches of trail to give them a break. But Zeus would not have it, and she'd had no choice but to leave him out front. Gordon had reamed her out for pushing the dog like that, but she could only argue that had Zeus not been in the lead, she would have had to carry him in the sled.
She whoaed the dogs at the top of a cut bank that dropped onto the frozen river, and she stepped on the toothed brake that stretched between the sled runners to emphasize her voice command. It was a stretch of the actual Iditarod trail, and she anticipated seeing it again in two weeks, seeing it as she saw it now, with no teams in front of her and only the vista of the small, thousand-soul village coming into view where it perched on a flat spit thrust into the Bering Sea. At ten below zero, the weather was perfect, even windless for once.
There was speculation that dogs raised in this environment were useless for the first stretch of the Iditarod, when temperatures in Anchorage, where the race started, could reach freezing or warmer. The dogs were miserable in that heat, but when it came to the latter half, dogs that felt like they were on vacation in the face of howling, below- zero gusts were an asset. And they knew they were going home.
She scanned the low hills rolling to the coast, her eyes searching for dark specks moving against white. Caribou. If Miranda could see this, she might understand better why Bridie did what she did. Miranda supported her in any endeavor, but with little comprehension of the details. When Bridie tried to describe it the space, the air, the sound of below-zero snow sizzling under the sled runners Miranda's eyes glazed, and Bridie knew her heart could not stretch past the lush valley in Oregon where she was raised. Bridie didn't fault her for that. Perry Hill was beautiful in an orderly, sculpted way, and it had shaped Miranda as inevitably as weather shapes land. But here on Alaska's western tundra, motion and momentum were unimpeded by roads, trellises, or buildings, and Bridie was all about motion, as Miranda herself liked to point out.
Bridie had been raised in eastern Michigan, but this landscape must have been in her heart all along. When Bridie was twelve, her father had taken a drive north to the Upper Peninsula. It was all the vacation they could ever afford, a day's drive as far as they could go. There was a crowd gathered in a snow-thick field, with banners stretched between two posts. Her father made the mistake of stopping to see what the to-do was, and that's when Bridie had seen her first sled-dog race. They watched the teams take off, one by one, and disappear into a stand of spruce. Bridie had pulled at her father's hand each time a racer faded into the trees, certain it should have been she who was moving on, the dogs' backs straining before her.
Life took her from Michigan to Oregon to graduate school in Oklahoma to an internship with a vet in Alaska and its inevitable tangle with the place where dogsled racing was the height of sport. Her mother fought her every step of the way. You got no business sashaying all over the place. We could use your help right here.
Her mother had relented slightly when Bridie chose veterinary; the doctor thing sounded good to her.
Bridie intended to stick with veterinary, but as if she'd planned a secret life for herself and executed it, she found both of her lives merging one spring day when Gordon came to the vet Bridie interned with to stock up on supplies. She trained and raced with him for three years before he retired and passed the torch, and three more years with the benefit of his full attention and access to his entire kennel. Once Bridie threw herself into dog racing, her mother retreated into bitterness that Bridie refused to tolerate.
Six years and thousands of trail miles later, she stood on this high bank with sixteen dogs in harness, a team of such perfectly matched canine souls, she had no doubt of her shot in this year's Iditarod, which began in just four days. Zorba, Moody, Watch, Spy, Frodo, Sandy, Alder, Chook, Stella, Boone, Jester, Jock, Murphy, Shy, Sheba, and Zeus. Just mouthing their names made her buzz, and she tried to stifle the adrenaline rush that came in spite of her fatigue. She slept only four hours a day now in preparation for the ten-day-long race, during which she would sleep very little. In most cases she'd use rest time for dog care and feeding, because without their good health, grace, and heart, there was no race.
She got off the sled and walked to the head of the team, encouraging each dog as she went. When she got to Zeus, she kneeled and submitted to a quick face-washing as she rubbed his chest.
Ready? she asked, and the blue eyes blared light as he crowhopped in place.
She returned to the sled and planted her boots on the runners, then yanked the snow hook. Hike! Let's go home.
Zeus surged down the cut bank and onto river ice, his white shoulder fur slipping side to side as long forelegs stretched for good footing. The rest of the team scudded down behind him, rumps tucked, and finally came the sled, prow jutting into air before the weight of it tipped forward. As it dropped down the bank, she crouched on the runners, knees bent to take the shock.
Jim greeted her in the dog yard when she returned. He'd flown out from Fairbanks the week before to assume his duties as dog handler for the race. He would fly to certain checkpoints along the race route to help with the dogs and make sure the food drops and equipment were in order. This was what Jim chose to do on vacation. He and Gordon had known each other from their service in Vietnam. Jim would have chosen to race but for the fused vertebrae in his spine, an injury from the war.
How's the trail? he asked.
Flight's out in two hours. What's left to do?
She gestured at the team. Just taking care of these guys. Is Gordon around?
Jim scuffed the dirty snow with his boot. Think he had to grab something at the hardware store.
He's that pissed? she asked.
Jim's eyebrows twitched upward.
I don't guess it would do any good to explain it to you?
Bridie sighed. Guess it's a guy thing, then.
Bridie unhooked each dog and kenneled it, then dragged the sled to the lean-to. She folded the blue harness and stowed it in a canvas bag that had her name and address stenciled on it.
Everything's packed and ready in the shed, she said. There shouldn't be any confusion.
You pack that .357 we got you?
Bridie had planned to leave it behind. A lot of racers didn't carry guns and had no trouble. Sure, there were arguments in favor of packing a weapon. Things happened. Parts of the trail wound through prime moose habitat, which at that time of year, included cow moose with calves. Even the most well-trained dogs rarely resisted that kind of temptation. You used the gun to finish off a moose badly injured by the dogs, or vice versa. Either scenario was something she wouldn't give weight to by preparing for it. Maybe it was superstitious. Maybe just blind stubbornness. But as far as she was concerned, the .357 was deadweight that she'd just as soon have for extra dog snacks.
Jim huffed and kicked a divot in the snow. Don't butt heads with him on this, Bridie. He's pissed enough as it is.
Okay, she said.
I'll put it in with my gear right now on one condition.
Jim rolled his eyes. What.
Give me a ride up to the airstrip after I change and get my bag.
Deal, he said. Yell when you're ready.
Once she'd changed into what she referred to as her city clothes, which were nothing but a cleaner version of her everyday clothes, she went back to the dog yard and said good-bye to the team, slipping each one a lard-and-fish Popsicle. Zeus smiled at her but didn't bother getting up. When not harnessed in lead, he could have been a porch dog.
You old hound, she said, and scratched him behind the ears. Guess I don't need to tell you to rest up. He rolled onto his side, stretched, and groaned. Yeah. That's what I thought.
Jim drove her up to the airstrip on the back of the snow machine, her duffel wedged between them. The afternoon winds had kicked up, and the resulting ground blizzard made it hard to see five feet ahead. This was the kind of weather racers dreaded on the trail. To the dogs, it was all blizzard, even though the drivers could look above them and see markless blue sky.
After Jim dropped her off, she stood at the door of the tiny air service office and watched him pull away, the taillights blinking out of sight almost immediately. Inside, the room was overheated and crowded with people waiting for the afternoon flight into Anchorage.
Several people tapped her shoulder as she edged through the crowd, smiled, and said good luck, thinking she was heading into Anchorage to prepare for the race start. She leaned against the wall next to an older woman, Glenna, who lived near Gordon and who prepared for Bridie the only food she took with her that was not made by Miranda.
You got that dried salmon all shipped out? Glenna asked.
Sure do, Bridie said, and rested her arm across the tiny woman's shoulders. It's kept me going more times than I can tell you.
That's what salmon do, Glenna said. Live and die so we can live and die, eh? She grinned at Bridie. The few teeth she had left speckled her smile like Chiclets. But her smile faded as she looked past Bridie to the door. Uh-oh. Here comes big pants.
Bridie knew she meant Gordon. He'd come to the small native village twenty-five years before to be a hunting guide, and built a small cabin upriver, where he spent the winters with dogs he'd bought from one of the pioneers of the Iditarod race, Herbie Nayokpuk. He'd intended to use them only for hauling wood and water, but Herbie passed the bug along, hidden in the rough fur of his dogs, and Gordon forgot all about guiding. Said he hated kowtowing to the idiots anyway.
Now his blond head weaved in and out of the sea of dark heads as he approached her.
Burn up trail, Glenna said, and squeezed Bridie's elbow before she slipped away.
Gordon stood next to her, facing the window, his feet slightly apart, hands locked behind him in that at-ease pose he'd never shaken after the army.
Jim said he dropped you off, Gordon said. Shoulda made you walk for all the trouble you're causing.
Bridie said nothing.
I retired three years ago, expecting somebody to carry the torch for me. I've put a lot into you. Did I screw up?
What do you think? she asked, mostly because she knew he was going to tell her anyway.
You're good, Bridie. You've got the knack with the dogs. Got the stamina. Got the drive. Unfortunately, you've got a woman's heart, and that's a weakness you can't overcome.
She knew he was baiting her, the old coach trick, but could not help her stomach tightening. A few years ago, her response would have blistered his face, but the racing had taught her to control herself. If you succumbed out there to frustration and anger, you might as well scratch.
I'm ready, the dogs are ready, everything's organized. Nothing but an act of God will hurt me in this race. And if it's time for that, even a man's heart won't help.
You're breaking training, concentration, the works.
Today would have been their last hard day anyway, she said. They're on a light schedule, and Jim can handle that fine. You know I like them hot out of the chute. She tried smiling at him to test the depth of his disapproval and got her answer when he refused even to meet her gaze. She tried another tack.
Look. I know taking on a 'woman's heart' has been difficult for you. I imagine you caught more shit for that than I do for being a woman. But I haven't disappointed you. I know that for a fact.
You're disappointing me now, he said.
Because you choose to be, she said. There's no merit in it.
He cut his eyes at her. Look at you, all of thirty, is it?
Thirty-two, she said. If he was going to berate her, he might as well have the facts.
Thirty-two. And what the hell do you know about merit? This girl's not even family, for Christ's sake. I wouldn't do it even if it was family.
She caught his eye for the breath of a second, thought of trying to explain that she probably wouldn't do it for family either. She remembered the moment she'd chosen Miranda as someone she trusted absolutely. She watched her fair-weather college friends troop into and out of the hospital room, their eyes falling away from her when she couldn't come up with the old razzle-dazzle. She'd wanted to yell at them, I'm here. I'm still here, but something steadied her each time she felt compelled to shout. Miranda knew she was there. And in all the time she'd spent later at the vineyard with Miranda, Bridie saw what others would fail to see in her friend, a woman whose limitless belief made you impervious to agony or weakness. How could Bridie possibly explain that to Gordon?
Gordon was still fuming. You're not going to save anybody by going down there now.
I don't expect to, she said.
Then why are you cutting your throat?
She scanned his face, which was scarlet with heat and anger, and she knew why he was beating this to death. When he retired from racing, he'd said he was over it. There wasn't enough challenge in it when he could win so easily. But he hadn't stopped wanting a challenge. So he'd got one. Her. And he was losing this race.
It's not my throat you're worried about, is it, she said, her voice barely audible above the din around them.
What do you mean? he said.
The pilot posted himself at the door and began herding passengers onto the tarmac toward the plane.
Bridie looked away. Nothing, she said. You won't be disappointed, but that'll only be a pleasant by-product.
Even a woman's heart is capable of selfishness, she said.
"Last call!" the pilot shouted, and Bridie stepped into the swirl of snow on the tarmac.
She buckled herself in, careful not to scrunch the square of stiff paper in her coat pocket. She'd taken the photograph from her album to give to Ruben. It was the finish line of the first big race Bridie had won. She had the distinction of also being the first woman to take it. Five hundred miles of vicious weather, ice, streams, and rivers to cross. In the four days it took her to win it, she had slept only four hours. That was the trick. As long as the dogs are rested and fed and happy, all you have to do is stay awake and keep going. Never lose the momentum.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews