By Wadin' Boot
I- The Balt
There is a man named The Balt. I am waiting for him in hut number five on the K--- Delta. He is said to be as big as a bear, he is said to be the best of guides, he comes highly recommended. He is expensive, I can afford him. I have been waiting for The Balt for a long time, though truth be told, I am no longer sure of how long I have waited. The light here doesn't pass days like it does where I am from. There are no stars, no northern lights, and there is no Balt.
In this light, three thousand feet above the K----Delta there's no good way to tell land from sea, river from cloud. The pilot shows no concern, taps the altimeter and nods to me, banks a little and points out something below, ripples of water or whitecaps, a berm of rocks, a field of bleached bones. I wouldn't know. She assumes I see well and that I understand her intents. All I know is that we're close, my ears are popping again, we are descending, she has throttled down, sits higher in her seat, cranes her neck to the side for a moment, then again looking ahead. She's looking for a channel in the river, for a stretch of flat water to put the floats on.
Sharon finds it and when she does, the plane shudders and shims its way, slowing quickly, far faster than any other landing I've had. We're down, taxiing, moving towards some shore that is apparent to her. She cuts the engine, cracks the door, and with the plane coming to a stop, retrieves an anchor from within the float and throws it. The current moves us back, slow, until we hold fast. Satisfied, she turns her attentions to me.
She leads me out, into knee deep water, onto the river's beach, points towards the hut, says:
"Soon, maybe in a day or so, he'll meet you here, hut five, K----Delta, God's Country."
She ferries my gear to the shore and leaves it in a pile. Two coolers- one full of food, the other beer.
"You could have filled the second one with beer also. Balt loves beer. He's more fun drunk…Aren't we all?"
"Not me, I'm a mean drunk."
I know how to kill a conversation. My wife said that. My ex-wives also. I can afford two ex-wives and one wife. I regret it, I regret them.
"You can't miss The Balt, he's big as a bear. You'll hear him before you see him, best guide you could ever meet."
I search for a tip, as though she were some city cabby, there's a ten, maybe a twenty, a gold coin, all of it unfamiliar to me, the colors make no sense. I hold out a bunch, grateful, a garish offering, paper and gold.
"Mr. Farnham- you can tip me when you're on the way back. In fish if you want, that's what I like."
I put the money away. I am new to this, who do I tip more, the pilot, Sharon, or the Balt? She's right though. You pay for service delivered, I've arrived, she's ferried me here, nothing more. She wades back out, big boots on the end of long, impossibly long, legs.
After stowing her anchor, Sharon poles the plane into the slow current of the river. Climbs back in, pulls the door, and in a blast of blue the engine fires and roars. Straight downstream, into the gray, into the air, banks away from where the sun should be, from the long lights of mid-summer, catches it above the gray low cloud bright enough for me to see the shimmer and cross of her silver wings, and then she's away and gone. It takes maybe four minutes for the last of the engine noise to vanish.
In its place are noises of waters flowing slow. The sound of my boots moving over floodplain rocks and till. The sounds of my expedition, eternal sounds. I expect soon to hear the Balt. You hear him, she said, before you see him.
III- The Hut
Its not much but its home.
Someone carved it into the table, in English. I would have expected Cyrillic or symbols, but no, familiar letters and no apostrophes. Someone had time to carve curved letters but not apostrophes. No one else corrected it. I had come all this way to escape corrections.
The table is softwood, quarter sawn, ridged up like rippled sands, cut in places in the slicing of fish, or potatoes. The top is all throwaway planks, warped in places, some still hemmed with bark. There's a bunk, wood slats and no mattresses, a small stove, cold, and pile of river drift woods, bleached, smooth as bones, salvaged. No cans of food, no pantry, no pots, three chairs, collapsible, the kind you put a beer in the built-in beer well. There is no smell of recent fires or food. There are two windows, their views look the same to me. A roof of tin, corrugated and rusted in places where I assumed ungalvanized nails were used to nail to the stringers. This place could be a year old. It could be twenty. I wouldn't know how long it takes wood and metal to age and rot here. The Balt would know. I would ask him.
This place would rattle in the wind, leak in the rain, fare poorly in snow. Bullet holes in the door jamb, probably a 22. My pinky almost fits in them. Nothing, no rodent, no bird, called this place home now. No one had been here for a long time. No flies scavenged what they could, no dead insects lay trapped against the window panes. No beetles bored into the driftwood. There were no delicate webs. One of the bullet holes was rimmed with a crust, salty to taste, and something, perhaps a small needled splinter of bone, lay trapped in it. On the outside of the door, a ridge of cobbler's nails, driven in place to form that number five. Hut number 5, where Sharon said The Balt would find me.
IV- The Delta
Thirty years ago a UW naturalist described the K--- Delta as the most beautiful place in the world. There were a series of lectures on great places teaming with life, places you could now see on Animal Planet every night of the week. But back then, before I had color TV, the Serengeti, The Great Barrier Reef, the Amazon Basin and The K---Delta came alive in public slide-shows. From the air, the K---Delta showed as a vast cabled braid of waters and green land surrounded by distant snow capped peaks.
I don't remember the name of the girl who asked me to the lecture that night, I can't even picture what she looked like. I've thought about this for days now. She fidgeted, asked if we could go early. When we left, we parted ways on Red Square, a dull, vast expanse of sterile brick. She accused me of being deliberately downhearted.(1) Sullen. It wasn't even a breakup, just a gulf of interests that she and I would never cross. I have been accused similarly by wives 1 through 3, diagnosed even. Dysthmia. A man like the Balt, I was sure, did not suffer similarly.
Years ago, maybe even that night, I swore I would see the K---- delta. I would see its flocks of summer birds, brown bears hunting fish, runs of spawning salmon, braided freestones merging into mudflats filled with migratory shorebirds. Millions of them, a vast squawking menagerie, flock after flock swerving and darting like bait balls through long watery lights. Needled by predators. I pictured small tidal bores moving upstream, meeting and mixing among braids of snowmelt, glacial and salt waters. I pictured the tiniest details, the layers of water densities mixing over tiny pebbles perfect for a redd. Like a cocktail- a vodka and gin drink. A mean martini poured stiff. What did he say it was? Four hundred square miles of verdant summer life?
I saw it that night and since, imagining small fogs moving up this giant estuary to where waters meet sun-filled green pastures. I would lie down there, in green pastures, by slow waters. Nine rivers converge here, where animals frolic and play, where everything should fatten prior to the long, dark winter.
And now that I am here there is nothing. It is day three, maybe day five since Sharon left me. I can't tell because the sky doesn't change and the clouds remain low and gray. There are rocks, covered with a thin layer silt, almost like the bleached algae-covered stones you find on a dry Sky side channel in August. Everywhere you look, the rocks, the braids, the water, it all looks like variant shades- crème, off white, French vanilla, khaki, sand, pebble-gray a hundred colors all so similar they merge into a world without contrasts. I don't see anything remotely resembling that slide-show from 1970.
"As big as the LA basin" that Naturalist had said, "only instead of people there are animals, and not millions of them, billions of them, here."
Yet on the way in, I couldn't tell where this basin begins and where it ends, I couldn't see the mountains and their snowfields and rock walls. Based on the maps I've studied, this delta is rimmed with mountains on three sides, the great sea on the fourth. I can't see any of that for low cloud and mist. It's been like that for days, longer even. I couldn't even tell you if the waters were flowing to the sea or in from the sea. I test them, but they taste like everything tastes here, like processed cheese. Salty, preserved forever and bland because of it.
This hut tells that it's been this way a long time. I think of that Pebble mine in Alaska. Perhaps they screwed this place up like they want to there. Maybe I'm on the shores of a blown giant settling pond from a vast toxic mine. A Gulag project bored out of the mountains by the hands of imprisoned men. Men with nothing but time and memories to look forward to. Men who succumb, like the fish, birds and bears to arsenic, mercury, cadmium and other poisons. This is a sterile scabland. I cannot yet admit that I am deeply disappointed. What hell is this?
The Balt will show me more. I drink a beer, then two, then three. I line the cans into a small pyramid, maybe I'll shoot them later. I wait on a bunk. I fall asleep on my rolled out sleeping bag, still unfamiliar with what time it is or should be. When I wake I know my face must be creased through the stubble, there is drool on the bag. I decide to fish.
I go to the main stem, the deeper water where that angel Sharon landed. The promising water to which she would, no doubt, return. I'm here to flyfish, that's my excuse. I fish because it leaves me feeling the opposite of downhearted, I feel good when I fish. I can afford to flyfish, I assemble my rod. It's day one, my first day here. I can afford a Helios, I can afford a guided trip to the last wilderness, I can afford The Balt.
Line is strung through the guides, passed along until each loop is threaded. I tie on a stimulator, though truth be told I don't know what to use here. I move into the water and disturb no bugs or fry, let alone sediment. I throw a cast towards where I last saw Sharon, where the plane moved over deeper waters. I listen for an explosive take.
That's how it goes in my dreams, it's how I imagine it, a massive splash and then hooked on to something big. Like in the magazines, like on TV, or the Fishing movies, hooked onto a freight train, a Roebling cable of a beast, but nothing happens. There is a slow, precise and small tightening of the line in my left hand. I know at the end, that stimulator is grooving the water in a deep unnatural "v". I give up after half-an-hour.
Later, maybe day two, there still is no Balt. I walk due east, I know it's east because I use my compass. I wear my wading boots and shorts. I move down small berms of rock onto the base of the braid. I move into the waters, sometimes as deep as my knee, never more, most times ankle deep. There is no structure but stones, only rocks as big as my fist and smaller. Sometimes my boot sinks deeper. I climb out, up a berm, onto a plateau of flat, places were grasses should be but are not. Twenty yards or more on, I make my way down the next berm, into another channel. I do this many more times, still heading east and then I see something.
Some blurred thing on the next flat. I can't see well. It's miraged, fogged. Maybe it's the Balt. I walk towards it, down a ridge of crumbling stones, through waters that this time look glacial. Up another hillock, maybe it's a moraine this time. I call out his name.
And then in case he wants it all formal:
And in desperation:
"I have beer."
I slip on the crumbling loose stones, pebbles like marbles, fall hard, and my glasses come off, my pill case flies out and butterflies open on the rocks, the contents spill into the gravel and scree that I thresh with my feet.
I crush the glasses, they splinter under my wading boot. I hold up the frames, there is no salvage here, my corrective lenses are gone. I cannot sort medicines from the small stones. The pills are all white, beige, khaki, crème. I have no spare meds. I have pulled my Achilles a little more, I should have worn my ankle brace.
Up onto the berm now, I walk towards the blur and it takes shape, not as The Balt, as I have imagined him, big as a bear, but instead as a hut, similar to the one I have left half-an-hour ago. I find the door, on it in Cobbler's nails, ridged on the door, there is that same number, five.
To check, to make sure I haven't looped through braids and made a wide circle in polar light, to make sure I haven't made my way back to the original hut, I push my way inside. There are three chairs. A quartersawn table, a stove, a simple bunk. River salvage woods, two windows, bullet holes. But no gear. No rod tube, no backpack, no coolers, and no apostrophe. On the way out, I run my fingers over the number again, and beside it, feeling for what, maybe a number "1" that had its nails pulled, but there are no small holes. This, too, was Hut #5.
How will the Balt find me if there is more than one hut number five? Alternatively, how many huts are there that I cannot see? There are four hundred square miles of delta into which nine rivers drain, all of it appears to look similar. There could be a hundred more huts, there could be a thousand. Where has Sharon left me?
I walk west, following the compass, squinting to make sure I have the needle right. Up and down berms, trying to retrace my steps. I cross fifteen, I cross twenty, I see another blur and it forms into a hut the closer I get. I push my way in and I find all of my gear just as I left it. I run all the pockets with the hope there is a pair of sunglasses. I find the bullets, I find the pistol. I find my toothpaste, my fleece, my ankle brace. A pocket radio, a pocket knife. And then I find them, the sunglasses. The kind that I should have worn before I started losing vision. I can afford glasses that do not let in UV light, no UVA no UVB and certainly nothing to kill your corneas and burn your retinas. These sunglasses also correct my vision. I see again, but what was once white and crème is now gray and dark. I look out on a stygian world.
I open the cooler and reach for another beer. None are missing. The carton is unopened. The three cans that I had drunk in the days prior are not where I left them, they are gone, replaced instead in a sealed cardboard carton filled with fresh, cold brews. I take the glasses off, looking for the empty cans, as though somehow the lenses, with their great corrections, made the can pyramid vanish. Unsurprisingly, there is no fundamental difference other than the world is both brighter and more blurred. There are no empties.
I assume, initially, that the Balt has been here, he has come looking for me, and that he has brought me beer instead of the other way around. We have missed each other because my timing is off. His day is my night, and vice-versa. But when I put the glasses back on, I see things differently, I know the Balt was never here. I know he came with no beer. The Balt doesn't bring beer to you, it works the other way around.
VII Processed Foods and Purgatory
Where is the Balt?
I shout his name, I push the door open and wolf whistle. There is no noise but for the echoes of the whistle-shot. I return for the gun. I load the pistol and fire it in the gray air, into the low cloud and mist. I shout for the Balt again. I have been here I don't know how long and yet there is some salty and metallic taste of madness I can't rid myself of.
My watch says it ought to be dinner time. I find some matches, I kindle some flames, now at least there is a color other than gray. There is fire, there is smoke. There is bright light still outside. There is no night here.
The second cooler is filled with foods that don't need a refrigerator, foods that could last forever. Processed meats and cheeses. Dried tropical fruits. Packets of freeze-dried meals, Coconut cookies, what appeared to be a box of Mac and Cheese. Peanut butter and hard biscuits. They're the sort of thick biscuits of breadbasket grains that a Babushka might reluctantly pull from her beneath her frock and gnaw in the midst of a Napoleonic winter famine. Vital, miserable, life sustaining. I avoid them and stick with the junk.
I eat what I could. I decide, after four beers, that the Balt, who would come for me, who would guide me to fish and food, would want me to use what I brought. He hadn't shown up when he should have, therefore I should eat. I could afford to eat. He would want me to eat it. He would expect me to be fat, bloated, warm. I fell asleep again and knew that I would wake to the Balt, as big as a bear, asking me why I ate the food. And I would tell him…
Of course I didn't wake to that. When I rose on day five, maybe day eight, the light was the same gray, and like the beers from days prior, the food was replaced, there was no mess, the stove was cold and without ashes. More beers remained unopened, wrapped still in their carton. There was no obvious passage of time, and no apostrophes.
Why would he need a whole cooler full of beer or food if it never ends? It made no sense. Its nonsense. No, wait, it's nonsense.
It occurs to me that Sharon only delivered me here, she said nothing about returning. And Balt might never come. And if he never came I would at least try and fish the K----Delta again. Maybe this bleak stretch was highwater and there was some verdancy elsewhere. I would fill my backpack. I would wander due North this time, ankle brace on, compass in hand. I would find another hut, maybe a different hut. I would cast my shock and awe, my grey ghost, my bitch creek. And when my day was done, I would make my way back to hut number Five, whichever one appeared, to wait for the Balt, or Sharon. And if they hadn't come after I had slept and ate, I would head south next. Or maybe East. It didn't really matter where I went.
Maybe I'd just float downstream, to where the water turned reliably salty. I'd bathe there. There was no hurry, there was plenty of time. There was no-one to impress or argue with. I take out my pocket knife, I pull the short blade out. I carve it right because I know, deep down I know now, I'm going to be here a while:
It's not much but it's home
(1) Ballroom. Paul Kelly, Gossip, Mushroom Records, 1986
(Notes: This story is based on Dante's Inferno, and its fifth level of hell. Those punished in the fifth level of hell are the wrathful and the gloomy. The river Styx runs through this level, and confers immortality to some, i.e. Achilles- were it not for his heel. Dante, unlike Virgil, imagined the Styx and this level not so much a river as a marsh. Charon, from Virgil, is the ferryman across the river Styx, in this story not imagined as a wonderful and abundant delta marsh, but instead as the endless, lifeless braids of the K--- delta. The fifth level borders purgatory and hell, maybe Farnham will leave, redeemed, maybe not. But the setting itself is how I imagine the Pebble Mine gone wrong, way wrong. And what worse hell than a lifeless delta with no fish and endless meals of processed cheese and meat)