Mariah perspired lightly in spite of a cool morning breeze sweeping across the quiet fog shrouded lake.
Her long dark hair was pulled tightly away from her face, and held severely by a rubber band, and something which resembled a small railroad spike. One lock of unruly hair hung down, not unappealingly, and she occasionally blew it out of her field of vision from time to time with an absentminded puff from pursed lips.
The dark soil was unyielding at first to her efforts, but with a diligent persistence she began to have a modicum of success. Glancing back on her handiwork, she wiped her brow with the back of her forearm, leaving a streak of mud across a face which was devoid of makeup.
The vegetable garden was being shaped by her meticulous attention for detail, as if it were a work of art. Side-by-side furrows lined up equally deep and were spaced with an architect’s precision. The garden was located close to the lake‘s shoreline, allowing for some irrigation and adequate sunlight.
Mariah found that gardening was both satisfying and somewhat cathartic. She enjoyed the hard work, and the fruits of her healing labor were especially sweet and nourishing not only for her body, but it also fed her soul. The days were becoming longer here at this latitude as the Earth began its slow tilt towards the sun. The sun arose in the East around 3 a.m. and sank in the West around 10 p.m., thus providing ample sunlight for her garden.
When the summer solstice arrives in June, however, midnight would appear to be more like noon. There would be daylight for 22 hours. People's Circadian rhythms would ultimately be upset. To compensate for the lack of night darkness, like vampires, most of the villagers would shroud their homes with heavy blackout curtains to help them sleep at what passed for their night. Some didn’t sleep well for six months, and they walked around like the walking dead.
Mariah’s garden was lush and colorful. The dark moist soil here in Moon Shadow was especially fertile. The rich mineral content and volcanic sediment provided a nutritious bed for vegetation. There is no need for pesticides. The common variety of vegetable eating insects were nonexistent this far north of the equator. The pesky gnats and mosquitoes were a different matter altogether and everywhere she went, a cloud orbited her, obscuring her vision while dive-bombing her ears like twin tower terrorists. There would be an occasional annoying buzzing and a tickle inside the ear canal and she would absently know what was happening as she slapped at her her ears in frustration. To a casual observer, she must have looked like a crazy person, cussing and hitting herself like that.
The forest critters were unsuccessfully kept at bay from foraging in the garden by a wobbly wooden fence. She didn't have a heart to set traps or leave poison out. The growing season at this latitude was comparatively short, and lasted only about a hundred days. The first frost was quickly approaching with the coming fall. If she didn’t harvest soon, everything she had worked so hard for would become dormant, and soon would be covered over by a thick blanket of snow. When snow first appeared on the ground, everything would become transformed and a new world would be born. She enjoyed the snow at first, but the monotony, isolation, and six months of darkness would eventually begin to wear on her. It would bear down on her like a heavy fur coat, and it seemed to her as if everyone and everything had slipped into a reluctant state of winter hibernation.
The dense forest crept close to the lake's shoreline for miles, except where man had pushed back its relentless encroachment into a few small clearings. Log homes had been built using the trees cut down from around the lake. Some of the log homes had been here for centuries. They were well built with superior craftsmanship, and they would probably last another hundred years.
Mariah closed her eyes and took in a few deep cleansing breaths. The air was pristine, uncontaminated, and free from pollutants. The village had no cars, only snowmobiles and a couple of electric golf carts as well as a few all-terrain-vehicles. Gasoline was at a premium here and it had to be brought in by barge "up-river". Which seemed ironic to Mariah as a great deal of the oil and gas for America flowed through Alaskan pipelines. There were no paved roads; only well worn foot paths which connected the scattered homes to a centrally located rustic lodge.
She surveyed her bountiful garden. It wasn’t your typical flower garden with roses and bulbs, although she did plant those as well, just located closer to her cabin. This was a working garden, vegetables instead of flowers. The tomatoes, corn, lettuce, and melons were all thriving quite well. The yearly bounty was much more than her family needed. She would preserve and freeze from the excess tomatoes, corn and carrots for the future. And she delighted in gleaning, sharing some of the surplus bounty with the other people in the village who were always grateful. Fresh vegetables were something of a rare commodity here in Moon Shadow. Most sundries and supplies had to be airlifted in due to the remoteness of the village.
She knew her neighbors well and called them by their first names. The residents of Moon Shadow either worked for the lodge, as support staff, or were hunting and fishing guides. Like her husband, a few worked in the nearby cannery or were commercial fishermen. Some residents lived off the land, like hermits in the encroaching forest or were itinerant fur trappers who sought after the mink, beaver and fox which abounded in this region. There was a steep price for the privilege of living in Moon Shadow, as it was cut off from civilization and approachable only by foot, seaplane or boat.
Mariah glanced toward her cabin and a sour taste of bile arose unbidden into the back of her throat, causing her to swallow hard to keep from retching. A tide of fear and loathing also welled up inside which spurred her to chop anew at the next furrow. Galvanized with a fresh resolve, she hacked away with a new fervor. Rusty, her dog, raised his noble head from crossed paws and regarded her with a tilted curiosity. He arose gingerly and began barking with the rare sharpened pitch Mariah knew to be associated with danger or alarm.
Tears began streaking her dusty cheeks as she mindlessly continued to hack away, but now on a slightly crooked tack. Her thoughts were clouded by the memory of last evening. Or rather a collage of the memories of the last two years of evenings since her new husband, Brad, had brought her to Moon Shadow after an alcohol infused whirlwind courtship. She had been visiting Anchorage Alaska while on her annual vacation. Childless and recently divorced, the trip had been a way to break free from her lonely and dreary life in Detroit. It would fulfill a lifelong dream of taking an Alaskan cruise and finally visit this wonderful country she had only read about in National Geographic and Jack London novels.
There wasn’t much to do in Anchorage at that time of year, as everything was basically snowed in. Brad was a local and he met up with her at a popular tavern near the port of embarkation where the cruise ship was docked. Some of her recently met onboard friends had dragged her to the tavern just to get her off the ship, and she had eventually relented with only half hearted resistance. She enjoyed their company, and although fearful in the stale beer soaked bar, she reasoned there was safety in numbers. She was normally a shy person with low self esteem, and bar hopping was not in her nature, but it didn’t take too much alcohol to get her loosened up. Before long she was laughing and dancing, even attempting Karaoke with her friends in a hastily formed quartet up on a stage. Of course she was tone def and couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, and her solo attempt to cover a Reba Macintyre song was painful to the ears. But everyone was good natured and clapped and danced to it, which made her feel like a diva.
Brad singled her out of a crowd of the not so sober women, many of whom were far prettier and more fun to be with than how Mariah pictured herself. This kind of male attention was very new to her and although she was at first suspicious, she was also flattered.
Later, she realized she had been carefully chosen, or rather culled out of the crowd for her apparent weaknesses. Much like on those nature shows she liked to watch, where a predator cut out the weak or slow prey out of a herd. On rare occasions, in her single-girl-past, she had usually been the last one to be picked up near closing time, and the remaining available men were wearing what people like to refer to as "beer goggles".
This time it was different, and although she was incredulous at how she was singled out, she somehow allowed it to just happen, even against her usual cautiousness and better judgment. Besides, she was here to unwind. She felt she needed this right now; she wanted to let loose and needed something to get her out of her post-divorce-depression.
Brad was not all that good looking and was not a smooth talker, but after plying her with a few White Russians cocktails she began to find him irresistible, and reluctantly allowed him to sweep her off her feet. He proposed to her after a one night stand in a cheap motel. Slightly besotted, she had said "yes". They wed the next day on board the docked cruise liner, their ceremony officiated by the ship's captain, and although the arrangements were hastily arraigned, she had been quite pleased. She had no attending relatives to witness the event and Brad didn’t have any friends or relatives living nearby either. He promised she would meet his friends later, after they returned to her new home. He showed her his pictures of Moon Shadow and his one room cabin. They seemed beautiful to look at and her head became full of the promise of a new life yet to be fulfilled. Her friends, the ones she had previously met on board, were the witnesses at the impromptu wedding, and they even helped to organize a small reception afterwards.
More alcohol flowed in the form of cheap champagne, which made her giggle when it tickled her nose. Later, that same day, those same friends, and a even a few strangers, who were caught up in the moment, cheered the newlyweds from the bow. The cruise ship departed from port, and it sailed away without her, on its journey up the coast of Alaska.
She had wanted to continue on board the ship with her new husband, as if they were on their honeymoon. Her ticket was of course prepaid and it would have been easy to add him now that they were married. Her spacious cabin could have easily accommodated both of them. The Captain assured her that this was totally acceptable, and she got the vibe that this sort of thing was not all that uncommon. There apparently were an unequal number of males to females in this part of the world. Many young women ended up staying here in Alaska, not shanghaied, but rather staying by choice. All this, while enjoying a state of male attraction that most women never get a chance to experience. Some rather plain looking women would settle down, more often than not, with whom most people would consider "great catches". Up here, lonely men frequently lowered their standards in order to have permanent female companionship. Mail order brides were also not all that uncommon.
She yearned to finish the cruise and see the glaciers and especially Kodiak Island, but Brad had persuaded her to delay their honeymoon for a while. He explained that he was in Anchorage only for a few days in order to pick up some supplies, and he needed to return to his job.
They made their way back home to Moon Shadow with her riding on one of the dogsleds huddled under a bear skin blanket while sitting on top of some lumpy provisions. Brad and two of his fellow residents from Moon Shadow, mushed their teams of sled dogs along well worn paths. They followed the Russian River for many miles until they finally reached Moon Shadow Lake. It took the better part of three days, and the trip might have been worse if they were not able to stay in abandoned cabins along the way. She should have had a premonition of what was to come by then, but she was caught up in the sheer adventure of it. She was not considered an outdoorsy person and had never even camped out before. So this journey with her new husband, although arduous, was both exciting and somehow romantic.
‘Had it only been two years since then? Tempus fugit. ‘, she thought and grimaced. Time had a way of slowing down here, and if not for the change in the seasons, time would appear to stand still.
Mariah’s resolve to make this marriage work, against all odds, was beginning to wither. This was round two of marriage wars for her, and she was determined to delete the word divorce from her life's vocabulary.
She could never have prepared herself for the feeling of being kidnapped to this island at the top of the world. Her romantic ideal of being taken to this far-off place and cared for by a loving and sensitive man had soon been shattered. Brad, her new husband, quickly revealed his true nature to be more like Captain Bluebeard. He would, occasionally, make her walk the virtual plank after each of his benders. How could she have known he would change from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde, after he binged and punched yet another hole in his liver with the help from a bottle of Jack Daniels.
Suddenly, the tranquility of the cool morning was shattered by the sound of metal striking rock. Her pick handle almost leaped from her hands. Abruptly she shook off her gloves and knelt down in the dirt, sobbing uncontrollably, while she hid her face in her still stinging hands.
Rusty approached her and softly nuzzled her with his big head, and she began to stroke his furry neck obtaining more comfort from their touch than he was receiving. She reached into her shirt pocket and retrieved a piece of bear jerky which she knew Rusty loved. Rusty wagged his tail and licked his lips as if communicating a polite "thank you". Rusty sniffed her leg timidly and offered to lick the tears from her cheek. Inconsolable at first, Mariah stroked his head and buried her face in the silky, soft neck fur of her magnificent Irish setter. Rusty had become her constant companion from the beginning and truly was her best friend. When her sobbing began to abate, she held on to Rusty a little too long and more tightly than he was accustomed. With an inherent good nature, he held his nurturing position, and his tail began to sweep the earth slowly from side to side.
Rusty had been a gift to her from a former neighbor that had moved back to the lower-forty-eight and couldn’t afford to bring a dog along. The puppy quickly became her shadow and a fiercely loyal companion. She was lonely, childless and approaching that age when the likelihood of experiencing motherhood was moot. Of course, having a child with the madman who often was passed out in their cabin, would be highly improbable. Beating her senseless night after night was the nearest thing that he offered in a way of marital affection. Procreation was not only quite implausible, but hard pressed she wasn’t sure they had ever consummated their marriage. She didn’t think Brad's feeble attempts at pawing her and smothering her with his huge body counted. His beer belly usually kept him from actual penetration, as well as his propensity for falling asleep in the middle of a mauling, which thankfully were infrequent.
Each morning before sunrise, Brad would awaken and set off on the trawlers with the other fishermen, who were intent on netting the spawning King Salmon with purse string nets. Later, they would return bringing their iced down catch into the cannery, and afterwards rewarded themselves for their hard work by convening at the lodge saloon for some libations. Much later, Brad would stumble into their cabin, smelling of whiskey and stale fish. Immediately, he would begin his verbal abuse, which then frequently escalated into physical violence.
At first, Mariah played the part of a dutiful, loyal and obedient wife. But from the start, Brad began to accuse her of being unfaithful to him while he was away at work. Of course, she could only vehemently deny his accusations. Later, she realized this was only his excuse to pick a fight with her, then he would bully her into submission.
She soon became a virtual hostage, mostly by the remoteness of her location. Gradually she became imprisoned by his threats of physical harm. She imagined that if she should attempt an escape, he would somehow track her down. He often threatened her with this, promising to make her pay for any attempt at running away by a beating within an inch of her life. She had nowhere to go, and nowhere to hide, and no one to turn to. She believed this with all of her heart.
Her situation had become hopeless, and all her prospects for happiness were stymied. Her despair was so deep that now she began to shiver uncontrollably. Finally, after regaining some composure and a little strength from Rusty’s big, brown eyes, she began to come around to the task at hand.
The plan, this morning, was to make room for zucchini. With disgust, she surveyed the asymmetrical furrow she had dug. It ran slightly crooked, and then took a mean hook toward the right. She flexed her fists and recalled the pain in her hands she’d experienced after hitting the buried rock with her pick. She bent down, peering into the depression the pick had made, and then began to dig away some of the loose dirt with her gloved hands. A few inches deep, she could just make out something hard, black and smooth; like obsidian.
Rusty cheerfully offered his digging assistance. She allowed him to dig furiously for a moment, before she laughed and playfully shoved him aside, and then resumed her excavation of the offending black rock. She hoped she could expose the rock and possibly remove it from her garden, rather than having to excavate around it.
With a renewed determination, she labored to reveal what was buried there. Soon she realized the futility of her plan as the hole grew larger revealing still more of the smooth black rock now seeming to reach deep under the lake. She imagined the rock was approximately the size of a Volkswagen bus.
She removed one of her gloves and scratched her scalp in bewilderment. Suddenly something caught her eye. It was a slight imperfection in the otherwise unblemished surface. It was a bowl shaped depression, about the size of an upside-down derby hat. Immediately, she recognized what it was. Indians had lived here for centuries before Moon Shadow was first settled by gold prospectors. Many of the large boulders surrounding the lake had similar depressions. The depressions were made by Athabascan Indian women who, with a stone pistil in hand, would ground corn into the meal used to make bread.
Gingerly, she touched the depression with calloused fingertips, trying to picture an Indian woman kneeling here, laboring to provide for her family. She brushed some of the dirt away which had rolled into the bowl. She discovered something was stuck to the bottom. It felt like tar or sludge. Upon removal of the somewhat sticky substance with her fingernails, something emerald green glinted and caught her eye. It sparkled brilliantly, reflecting in the bright sunlight. On closer inspection, she guessed it was some kind of precious stone embedded in the rock. It caught the light, and glittered like a dazzling green diamond. She began to pry at it with her nail bitten fingertips.
If this was what she thought it was, it might just be her ticket out of here. A gem stone of this size and clarity might just fetch a hefty price in Anchorage. Unfortunately, the jewel proved to be firmly embedded in the rock. She was beginning to realize the futility of recovering the gem without the use of some kind of tool, when suddenly she felt something prick the tip of her finger. There was no pain really, but instantly she was aware of a tingly feeling, which quickly climbed up her hand to her arm. Immediately, she felt a strange sensation enveloping her, and a warm glow washed over her from head to toe. She giggled uncontrollably at first, until her throat began to tighten, then she felt panic as though she couldn’t catch her breath. She began to gag and tried to cough, but only a wheezing sound was all she could muster. Horrified, she realized she had abruptly lost control of her bladder. She began to notice a rainbow of colors invading her field of vision, like a kaleidoscope, then suddenly she began to feel dizzy. A involuntary gurgle escaped from her throat and then she began to breath better.
Dismayed, she arose and put her index finger to her lips to suck on her own warm red blood. It had a coppery taste. Morbidly embarrassed that she had wet her pants, she gathered some of her composure, and began to stumble-step backwards from the garden. Sobbing and murmuring to herself she hurried along the path with a worried Rusty in tow. She needed to change out of her wet clothes, and then clean and bandage the small cut.
She berated herself for over-reacting the way she had to such a tiny cut. She thought of herself as a pretty tough cookie at handling pain, and even prided herself on this attribute. She began thinking perhaps she might be hysterical or on the verge of a nervous breakdown or something.
However, Mariah had more pressing matters to think about. Like, what if Brad was awake, and what would he do to her if he saw her like this? She began to whimper like a small child with this vision.