Read an Excerpt
The little boy was already up and dressed when his uncle came for him. His mother had told him to go to bed early, but he had been too excited to sleep. She had set up the coffeepot before going to bed, but he stoked the fire himself and put it on to brew. Then he had carefully dragged a chair over to the cabinet and replaced the pristine white mug his mother had left out for the chipped blue one his uncle favored.
Jimmy Kalmaku was pouring the coffee as the old truck pulled up. The strong aroma filled the kitchen, reminding him of early mornings when his father and uncle would go out in the boats.
He listened for his uncle, but of course he made no sound. Despite the silence, the little boy opened the door just as the old man reached the threshold, the bond between them as strong as new rope. Uncle Will entered and took the coffee. Breathing it in, he nodded his approval. Then he took the pot and poured a cup for Jimmy; he gave the boy the strong brew, heavily laced with cream and sugar. The mixture was bitter and sweet, and Jimmy felt very grown-up drinking it. He was seven years old in that spring of 1948.
The two left the warmth of the dark house, their boots crunching over the frost-covered earth. Boley rose and stretched stiffly on his haunches. Although dogs often went with the men on fishing trips, Boley would not be joining them. Jimmy patted the dog, and Boley looked up into his face with sad, wise eyes. Ever obedient, the dog did not bark as they got into the truck and drove off.
As they traveled toward town, neither spoke. Familiar with his uncle’s ways, the boy silently watched his world pass by, its familiarity stripped away by the earliness of the hour.
Their village was located in the lowlands along the Gulf of Alaska and was called Yanut. It was about ten miles from Yakutat and small even by Tlingit standards. The town proper was barely two blocks long, enough space to keep a grocer, a drugstore, a hotel, a hardware store, and three bars. The bars—the Northern Lights, the Yanut Bar & Grille, and the Blue Lantern—were always busy. To Jimmy, they always looked mysterious and inviting, with their bright neon and shadowy figures hunched within, smoke and music floating out into the crisp night air like wraiths.
Now even these islands of light and noise were dark and silent, their patrons sleeping off another Friday night.
Outside the hotel, a shadow sat in one of the metal chairs, illuminated only by the orange glow of a cigarette. The glow intensified as they passed, and the boy felt his skin ripple with gooseflesh. Who else would be up if not a demon? Perhaps it was the Stick Man, waiting for some little boy who should be home in bed . . .
“Guess old Charlie can’t sleep,” his uncle Will said, answering the boy’s fear without calling attention to it. Jimmy relaxed at the familiar name, not realizing he had tensed as tight as a bowstring, the fingers of his right hand anxiously gripping the dashboard.
The rest of the village and its outlying homes were quiet, peaceful in the waning light of the moon and the stars, the pines tall sentinels in black and silver. For the first time in his short life, Jimmy looked at his hometown and found it beautiful. He smiled as he thought of the people sleeping in their beds, like his own family. He felt the cold of the window against his forehead and was happy.
Uncle Will’s wife had made them some corn bread and dried fish, and Jimmy munched on his breakfast as they drove away from town. The last homes and shacks gave way to thick stands of pine, their scent a constant reminder of Tlingit ties to land and sea.
Jimmy was surprised when his uncle turned right as they left town. Left would have taken them down to the bay, where the boat Uncle Will had supposedly hired would be waiting. To their right lay a deep forest of Sitka spruce, hemlock, and cedar, and beyond that a glacial waste.
Jimmy had studied under his uncle for two years and knew there was a time for questions. This was not it. When he kept his tongue as they turned the wrong way, his uncle nodded in satisfaction.
By the time the sun was just edging over the mountains to the east, Uncle Will arrived at a small road that was little more than a dirt trail. He turned onto the side road and the truck bounced over stones and ruts for over an hour. Now Jimmy wished he had not been so greedy with Aunt Mo’s corn bread. His stomach squirmed as he held on to the dashboard and tried to think calming thoughts.
Uncle Will finally stopped when the road became impassable with snow. In this region, the drifts stayed in place even in summer. Jimmy had never ventured so far from home and was both elated and terrified by the strange surroundings.
Uncle Will got out of the truck and motioned for the boy to do the same.
“Remember our path today, Mouse, and observe everything. I hope you need never come this way again, but you must remember.”
Jimmy nodded. They walked along a path strewn with snow and jagged black rock. The air was still and crystalline, as if it might fracture into bright blue shards at any moment. The sun brought light, but little warmth. Jimmy was glad his mother had made him such a thick coat. He stuffed his hands in the large pockets and followed his uncle off the path.
Uncle Will was sixty-seven years old, and his gray hair hung down to the small of his back in several plaits. Were he performing an important ritual, he would let it hang long and unkempt as he worked his magic. The old man’s features were as weathered and polished as stone, his eyes as dark and clever as Raven’s. Half of his left ear had been torn off in an encounter with a bear, and the ragged remnant marked him as one particularly powerful. He wore a large earring of obsidian and copper punched through the partial arc of cartilage the bear had not removed. Uncle Will rarely smiled, but on those occasions when he did, it was usually in the company of his nephew. As for Jimmy, he loved his uncle and was in awe of him.
By ten o’clock, they had reached a rocky outcropping. In winter, the stones would be hidden under high drifts, but now they poked up from the snow like the dorsal plates of some prehistoric beast.
As Jimmy approached the rocks, a feeling of disquiet came over him. His skin tingled, and there was a fluttering in his stomach, as if he were about to jump off a high ledge into unknown waters.
There was a cave on the far side of the outcropping, its entrance only three feet high. Several small talismans of carved ivory had been placed at the entrance, their magic keeping them in place through years of snow and thaw, rains and wind. The skeletons of several birds lay near the entrance, as well as the remains of a hare and the desiccated body of a fox. All of the creatures pointed away from the mouth of the cave, as if they had blundered in, then died as they exited.
Jimmy looked at the remains, fear growing in him. He prayed fervently that his uncle would tell him some story, then they would be on their way.
His uncle removed a flask from his coat and told him to take a small sip.
Jimmy’s nose wrinkled at the pungent smell of the flask, and he took a tiny, tentative sip. It tasted like smoke and burned his throat. He coughed in loud and rasping hacks as his uncle retrieved the flask. Jimmy then felt a sudden burst of warmth in his belly, and he felt alert, strong.
His uncle clasped his small shoulders.
“One day,” he said, his voice low and full of gravity, “I will be gone, and our people will look to you. You will heal the sick and guide fish to the hooks and nets. You will cast out spirits and find those lost on the ice. But nothing, nothing you learn from me will ever be as important as what I show you today. Keep it with you always and never forget. Do you understand?”
Jimmy nodded, more out of fear than understanding.
His uncle pointed to the mouth of the cave, his expression grave. Jimmy looked at him for a moment, then realized his uncle wanted him to go in alone. He started to pull back, but his uncle gripped him fiercely. Jimmy whimpered, but there was a terrible fire in his uncle’s eyes.
“I cannot take you, you must see alone.”
Jimmy fought his desire to run away, though it seemed preferable to be lost in these trackless wastes or ravaged by a bear than to see what lay beyond the diminutive, carved sentries and their collection of unwitting sacrifices.
“You are my nephew, Mouse, and you are stronger than you realize. Our people will depend on you—this is not a duty you can shrug off like a wet coat. You must see. You must understand.”
Jimmy looked in Uncle Will’s eyes and saw the fierce love that his uncle had for him. He realized that he would do almost anything save disappoint the old man. Slowly, he nodded.
His uncle clapped him on the back, a gesture among adults, and the hard blow seemed to strengthen rather than pain him. Taking a breath, he stooped slightly and entered the cave.
Inside, it seemed warm rather than cool, and the air was redolent with the scents of cinnamon and leather, the smells of the long dead. The floor was rough and jagged, heading down in a gentle slope. Along the walls were dozens of skulls, both animal and human, each one painted and decorated with beadwork or feathers. Beast and man, they were grouped together, as if they had been allies in some great conflict. The boy knew enough to recognize that these were not trophies but sentinels from the Land of the Dead, guardians from across the seas that had been entrusted with some sacred task. Indeed, the air was heavy with decades of ritual and ceremony. Although he was frightened, he dared not utter a sound, lest those hollow eyes turn on him.
As he moved down, the light from outside faded, and the air turned chill, a frigid cold that increased in severity, a cruel and icy state without respite. The skulls along the wall became more massive, some of them with fangs nearly a foot long, cruel scimitars in predatory jaws. Just as the light all but disappeared, he saw massive skulls with huge, curving tusks as large as himself. Inverted, their great ivory arcs formed a portal. There was a dim light ahead, and he made for it, conscious of the grinning skulls flanking his progress, their empty eyes retaining the visions of millennia past.
Jimmy Kalmaku was filled with both terror and exhilaration. He knew that what he was about to see was only for the most wise.
He stepped into a vast chamber; its walls covered with ice colored a deep blue by the centuries. Long ago the cave had been a dwelling, and a vent had been laboriously carved in the ceiling for the fire pit. This makeshift chimney served as a sort of skylight, allowing the spring sun to partially illuminate the chamber.
To his left, the walls were bare. There were no skulls, no carvings, no painted figures or masks. To his right, a wall of ice, the light from above illuminating it, its interior filled with a soft, golden glow. Rather than smelling musty, there was a clean smell to the place, and the hint of a spice like his mother sometimes used in cooking.
In the center, obscured and distorted by thick blue ice, something was suspended.
It was very dark and roughly circular. The object looked to be about the size of a large dinner plate, but it was hard to tell given the distortion of the ice. As he tried to puzzle out what it was, he saw a glimmer of gold around its outer edge.
Suddenly, it saw him.
There was no change in the object, no opening of eyes or shifting of position. It remained suspended in the ice as it surely had for hundreds of years. But he knew it saw him. He knew with absolute certainty that it was hungry for him, jealous of his life and warmth.
Jimmy stared at it. The voice was in his head and all around him.
are you cold? i am cold
It was the sound of gusts around their roof at night, when the wind scrabbles and claws at the eaves, searching for a way into the snug, warm room. It was the sound a man makes when he is trapped under thick ice, his fellows above watching helplessly as he is claimed by the cold sea.
let me out
The voice seemed to tear into him with needlelike claws. He backed up, striking the opposite wall and letting out a strangled gasp.
let me out
The voice was sliding around his mind, an eel that left a viscous and foul-smelling ooze on his thoughts. Jimmy felt at any moment he might throw up or faint.
let me out, jimmy. i can teach you more than the old man
At the mention of his name, a low moan escaped him. It knew him. Now he would never be free of it. No matter where he went, it would find him.
let me out
Would that be so terrible? To let it out? Perhaps it was a mistake, imprisoning it here. What creature deserved such a lonely and terrible existence? He could dig it out with tusks from the animal skulls, and he had the knife his uncle had given him . . .
“Tread lightly, Mouse.”
It was the voice of his uncle, deep in his mind, and it brought both comfort and sanity. It lifted the thick veil that seemed to have wrapped his mind and heart only seconds before.
He shook his head, trying to clear it further. The ice before him seemed to thrum with the power of the thing. If he were to let it out, what terrible things might be unleashed? His uncle said he must not forget what was here, that he must protect their people. It belonged here, shrouded in ice and shut away from the lives of Men.
Let Me Out
It was growing angry now, realizing its hold on him was weakening.
LET ME OUT
Its voice rose to a scream in his head, a sound that seemed to strike the ice like a mallet.
Jimmy ran then, unable to control himself. He blundered into one of the large skulls outside the chamber and opened a gash on his forehead. Disoriented, he started down a side tunnel, into the darkness. The screaming continued inside his head, followed by laughter that seemed to promise an eternity of misery, a suffering beyond anything he could imagine.
Feeling hopelessly lost, he collapsed on the stone floor and wept, knowing he would never see his mother or father again. The young boy prayed for death, prayed for anything that might bring silence.
Something pricked the back of his right hand, and the sharp pain made him look up, sure the thing had found him.
A raven, as white as the first snow of winter, regarded him quizzically. It hopped up, then pecked at his hand again, more gently this time. He could still hear the screaming of the thing in the chamber, but it seemed distant now, a wolf that circles the village long house in vain but cannot enter.
The raven hopped away from him, and he could see now that the tips of its feathers and beak were a burnished gold. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. It moved away from him, slightly luminous in the dark side tunnel.
Jimmy followed it, and it led him quickly past the skull sentries and to the tunnel leading up to the cave entrance. The screaming of the thing in the chamber had diminished to little more than a whisper, and he shut it out of his head with thoughts of his mother’s smile and his father’s carrying him on his broad shoulders through town.
When he reached the entrance, he looked for the raven, but it had disappeared. He stepped out into the sunlight, and its warmth was like a welcome caress.
His uncle hugged him, then dressed the wound on his forehead before they made the hike back to the truck.
He wondered if his uncle would have come after him if the raven had not. Then he wondered if his uncle had sent the raven, if, indeed, he had been the raven. He had many questions, but they could wait.
“Tell me about the thing in the cave,” Jimmy Kalmaku said.
As they drove back to the village of Yanut, his uncle told him about The Faceless One.