AlaskaAuthor: Saliba Sue
Binding: Paperback Book
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mia's heart made a sound that no one heard
except for mia
late one night when she woke from dreams into darkness.
ethan was asleep beside her, and em was a forest away. outside it was night and dark and alaska. the sky was upside down.
mia lifted the heavy blankets so she could free herself from the bed. ethan did not stir. he was lying face towards the wall. she went to his wardrobe and dressed herself in a jumper, a jacket and her jeans. she pulled the fur-lined boots em had given her onto her feet and she felt her way down the stairs, through ethan's house, to the front door.
it was winter now and there was snow everywhere. it hadn't been like this when she had first arrived three months earlier. then it was summer and endless light. she couldn't sleep in the little room her sister em had made up for her without a blanket over the window to keep out the sun. now she stepped into stillness.
something had woken her and she could not go back to sleep.
alaska was an anonymous somewhere else. an escape from school in melbourne and from the mother mia was ashamed of. when em had phoned to say the ticket was finalised mia had felt instant relief. now she could tell the year twelve coordinator she was leaving to be with her sister in fairbanks, alaska. it wasn't that mia hated school and it wasn't that she loved it. she just wasn't sure where any of it might lead her and, above all, she wasn't sure how any of it might lead her back to em.
'you can leave school for now,' em had said, 'as long as you go back and finish year twelve.' 'yes,' mia had replied, but she was actually more interested in what em said next.
'you needn't bother packing many clothes, mia. it will soon be winter here and nothing you can bring will protect you. you can borrow some of my clothes. after all, we're the same size.'
actually, they were different sizes and always had been. mia sensed it from the beginning, but she never said anything. when em still lived at home, mia would sneak across the gap between their beds at night. there she'd lie with her chest gently against em's back, legs exposed to the cold, blanketless air. there was never enough room for both of them, but mia didn't let em know. instead she stayed stiff and awkward all through the night, uncomfortable, but close to em, just as she wanted.
the clothes, though, would be a blessing – she hadn't walked in em's clothes since her sister had left for alaska five years before. of course they would be too tight, too restrictive, but mia would somehow get around that. she could leave a zip undone, a button unbuttoned. after all, she was not unfamiliar with pretending.
and it was that pretending that might explain how she could smile so brightly while her mind felt nothing – as if, at these times, there existed a disconnection between outer and inner, a shutting off, and the key to her happiness lay in warding off pain, or dodging it, or pushing it into the shape of something else – like shame or anger or even hope.
hope – yes, that's what she felt when she met ethan, surely it was. there was mia, newly arrived in alaska, and already lost inside the forest between em's house and the patch of blueberries em had directed her to, a thorn inside her hair. ethan stepped into the green that surrounded her, so thick she could barely see the sky.
she should have been surprised but she wasn't – a stranger emerging out of the leaves and branches and moss. he held a metal bucket with two rainbowcoloured fish inside. they had just enough water to keep them alive.
'i didn't expect to find anyone here,' he said calmly, as if he might be talking to a friend or a sudden stray deer. 'i'm em's sister,' mia said. em was everything mia knew of alaska. surely everyone must know of em.
'i don't know em,' he said.
and there, what should have been a moment of disconnection became one of attraction. mia bent her head to see inside the bucket although she already knew the fish were straining to remain submerged. she'd heard them, faint but distinct, thrashing against the metal.
'i caught them in the forest,' he said. she laughed. 'fish that swim through forest?' 'yes, why not?' 'why not?' she echoed.
she'd heard stranger things, like her mother's version of love. love explains all things, her mother said. but so much remained inexplicable – and unforgivable – like her mother's illness, although illness was not the
right term since people didn't choose to be ill and undeniably her mother's condition was something of her own choosing.
'is your mother normal?' mia asked ethan. they were sitting on his lounge-room sofa with his family photograph album open across their knees. 'you know, can you go out with her and feel okay . . . in front of other people?' it was five weeks since they'd met each other. he hesitated. 'sometimes she wears too much jewellery,' he said, with a tone of uncertainty.
and mia pulled him closer. what a perfect response. he really did belong to another world with his innocence of shame. he was as remote from her childhood life as alaska was from melbourne, and perhaps more. what a wonderful distance to travel. she slid her hand behind her back, then, and undid the only clasp on her skirt.
it was the first night she stayed with him.
in the morning the next day, everything was still. even ethan's breath that she'd felt against her skin all night seemed to have disappeared. it could have been like the stillness of morning in her mother's house, but it wasn't. mia told herself it wasn't. here, there was possibility, not just the abandonment of the night before. she looked at ethan, his sleeping face. if she had crept to the window and pushed aside the curtain, she would have seen a sky that in summer barely faded all night, a simple sun circling its horizon as if the mechanics of the world could be changed after all.
instead she looked at ethan. he was as unlikely a resident of alaska as she was. ethan alvares, a portuguesespeaking man who'd grown up in mozambique. when mia had looked at the photographs of his brothers, his parents, his younger sister, she'd felt excited. perhaps it was his stories of mammoth african owls or the drama of his family fleeing a violent revolution to arrive as refugees in california. or perhaps it was something else. certainly when she looked at the photographs she saw hands that reached out to each other, smiles, eyes that suggested a lifetime of trust.
ethan kept sleeping. mia admired that, since she'd lost the ability to sleep long before em had left home to live in alaska, this quiet landscape at the other end of the world. in the half-painted house amongst the thistles and weeds that she'd shared with her mother and em, mia had woken every few hours of the night. sometimes it was because of rain against the louvre slats of the window or sometimes it was one of the cats, skinny and silent in the room. but usually it was her fear, simple and gaping, that woke her. it screamed: be careful, be vigilant. be ready.
ethan shifted in the bed. he pressed his face deeper into the pillow. mia wondered if he might sleep forever. she wondered if he might understand her fear if she were to tell him, perhaps whisper it to him as he lay beside her right now. but she stopped herself. no, he wouldn't understand. how could he? he was the one who deserved to be fearful. he was the one who had been driven from his childhood home, had sailed frantically across treacherous seas, landed in a country where he could barely speak the language – and yet he slept peacefully. she, who had none of these outward
reasons to be scared, she was the one who was fearful. it shouldn't have run like that, not according to logic.
but then logic didn't run everything. mia had already encountered that truth. when they were children, em had told her that the dog they'd found, dirty and lame in the gutter, licked mia's hand only to swallow the salt.
'he's been nutritionally deprived,' em said. she was twelve and had just started studying chemistry. 'he's trying to build up his iodine levels.' even then, eight years old and without the words and explanations em could so readily conjure, mia knew her older sister was wrong. 'salt?' mia said. 'yes, absolutely. salt.'
it was only later that mia read in a library book someone had left between two seats at the local bus stop that dogs lick the hands of humans to invite them into their pack. the licking of the hand is a selective and intimate gesture.
the dog had long since disappeared by then, gone the way of all the animals – cats, guinea pigs, mice and birds – who came into their childhood home. stricken, diminished – they grew sick and eventually faded away. nothing, nothing back then, seemed to hold on to life.
mia was responsible for the graves, and afterwards, always, em would supervise the cleaning of the house. they'd scrub and scour after each death. there was much to clean. the black that patterned the bathroom wall, the grease that lined the tiles of the kitchen. dust, mould. dirt that rimmed the edges of the kitchen table and every window and every glass and cup and saucer. they polished, swept, mopped and scraped. it was only when their mother appeared momentarily in the doorway that they'd stop. she didn't like their cleaning. she felt insulted by it. it was as if they were saying, we have to do this because you don't.
critical, that's what their mother called them, and she would return to her room and lie under her eiderdown.