This is a work of historical fiction with emphasis of the historical. All references to letters and journals are actual, although liberties have been taken with some dialogue and events.
“How many days until Christmas, Father?”
There was once an island – or should I say “There is an island,“ for that place still exists today, surrounded by glaciers in a fjord off the coast of Alaska.
Perhaps I should begin – Once upon an island, all three of them, the father, his son, and the old Swede, were grateful that at least the biting cold and the fierce north wind that ushered in the first half of December had finally ended. Today, December 18, the mild and comfortable weather made it warm enough to go outside without a heavy jacket, even in the gentle rain that mixed with light, fluffy snow. At dusk, the little boy and his father hiked south along the beach to the headland between the island’s two coves while the old man wandered back to his cabin to feed the fox. That’s why the place was called Fox Island, even though he raised angora goats, too. As the father and son stepped along the beach, low clouds hid the mountain peaks except to the south where the sun occasionally peaked out of a blue patch as it set. A little snow covered the pebbly beach as they crunched along. The sea was a wavy mirror, like rubber glass with pulsating swells emerging from the open Gulf of Alaska.
The father and son didn’t talk much as they walked. When they reached the south headland the father stopped, looked around, removed a battered notebook from his pocket and drew some sketches. More to himself he said, “If only I had my canvas prepared, I’d do some studies from this point. Different views.” He sketched some more, then packed the notebook in a pocket before they headed north toward home. A black and white world of snow and spruce forests surrounded them as darkness descended. The old man had finished his chores and met them at their cabin. All three ate dinner together – a stew of beans and rice with goat-milk junket for dessert, courtesy of the Swede. Then they lit more oil lamps and settled into an eerie wilderness silence.
The little boy – he was nine years old and though still young he was hardly little – actually quite tall for his age. Most people thought he was 11 or 12 years old. The young lad asked his father, “How many days until Christmas?”
It was a Wednesday, maybe. They had lost track of weekdays, but the youngster knew it was December 18 and he certainly knew it was 1918. He was also aware that the influenza raged throughout the world, even in the town of Seward only twelve miles north of their island. They had closed the schools there and the Liberty Theatre. They had also prohibited all large gatherings. That’s how it had been a week earlier when he and his father took their 18-foot dory north up the bay, their fidgety 3.5 horsepower Evinrude engine puttering sickly away – until it just stopped with a bang. That was nothing new. It happened often. When it did, they got the oars out and rowed the remaining miles. Back in September they had nearly drowned in a storm on their way back to the island, but the boy didn’t want to think about that.
On their early December trip to Seward his father didn’t talk along the way and seemed ill. After they registered at the Sexton Hotel and settled in their room, his father laid down and moaned, asked for some water, and a damp cloth. Wipe my brow, he told his son. The boy was scared. He wasn’t supposed to know, but earlier he had heard the old Swede and his father talking. Two of his little sisters, little Kathleen and Clara, were sick, probably with what they called the influenza grippe. The girls seemed to be recovering, but because the mail took so long to go back to and from New York, that was old news, and for all he knew they could be in bed sweating and moaning like his father, or even dead by now. Maybe the whole world was dead by now. All the news they got was weeks, sometimes months old. What if his father died? What would become of him? The boy sat up most of the night wiping his father’s brow and comforting him. The local postmaster and his family, the Roots, were nice people and he and his father had spent several evenings with them. Perhaps they would take him in. Or maybe Mr. Brownell or Mr. Hawkins would house him for a while and see that he got home. He’d have to travel alone on a steamship out of Seward and then a train across the country. What if he got lost? Fortunately, the next morning his father seemed cured and nothing more was ever said about that evening. They went about their shopping and business in Seward and headed back out to Fox Island. Mr. Graef at the hardware store had fixed the engine so their finicky machine puttered them safely back home.
The youngster knew more than his father and the old man realized. He knew about the other women in his father’s life. He only had a vague memory of Jennie. But his recall of all the trouble that relationship caused between his mother and father still haunted him. His father’s new girlfriend, Hildegarde, was nice and he met with her often. She got invited to all his birthday parties. But his mother, Kathleen, didn’t like Hildegarde. He never forgot the one big argument at his father’s studio two years ago. He had been visiting his father there when both Hidegarde and Kathleen showed up. Shouting and crying, threats and promises. His mother had grabbed his hand and dragged him away. In the evenings when his father was home, his parents would make music together, his mother on the piano and his father on the flute. During the interludes there were often harsh arguments, shouting and crying. Though he didn’t understand it all, the boy knew more than little Kathleen and Clara.
The boy certainly knew how many days it was until Christmas. He could count. But he was afraid the holiday wouldn’t come to the island that year; not only because of the influenza, but also because he was so far away from New York City where his mother and three sisters lived. He still believed in Santa Claus, but something told him even with magic the big man couldn’t find every island in the world. Part of him missed his family and wanted to be home, but another piece of the boy loved the wild place he and his father had settled for the winter. There he played King Arthur and Sir Lancelot in the woods with his alder-stick sword. For a few weeks he tried to teach a pet black-billed magpie to talk. He housed the bird in a cage his father had built and attached to the north side of their cabin. They had found it dead on their return from Seward after one of their trips. Then there was the pet porcupine. He eventually wandered off and never returned. The boy often explored the beach, collecting shells and odd shaped pebbles – especially the heart-shaped ones. A few times a pod of Orca approached as they rubbed their bellies on the pebbly beach. Once he got close enough to touch their dorsal fins with his alder sword. Maybe that’s what his father meant when – in response to his son’s rare complaint of boredom – said in a lecturing tone, “These are the time in life when nothing happens, but in a quietness the soul expands.”
But now it was December 18 and he often he thought about his mother and sisters and how they all used to tramp the woods every year with father in search of a Christmas tree. They’d haul it home, set it up and decorate it with tinsel, popcorn strings, and candles that they’d light for a short time each evening. On Fox Island there was no Christmas tree in their small cabin, no candles, no decorations – and most important, no presents. His father had warned him that the mail steamship might not arrive on time. He didn’t say on time for what – but the boy knew he meant on time for Christmas. And that meant no letters and especially packages from his mother and sisters and aunts and grandmother. His father didn’t have much cash. Paint, brushes and canvas cost money. In so many words, his father hinted that it would be a frugal holiday, and the boy interpreted that as meaning no presents at all.
“How many days until Christmas, Father,” the boy asked again, annoyed that no one seemed to be paying any attention to him. If the answer was, “Don’t worry, Rockie. Christmas is only seven days away.” – then at least he could stop worrying so much. His father sat on a storage box beside their makeshift dining table facing a small window on the cabin’s west wall. He did that often, as if meditating, probably composing a drawing or painting in his mind. Rockie sat beside him on a rustic chair. No use talking to his father when he meditated for, if the boy broke that spell, he risked arousing his father’s temper. It was best to let him alone. After several minutes he would either abandon his creative quest or hurry to his worktable and begin a sketch. The old man, too, had also learned over the months to stay away from the artist during his mystic moods. The Swede stood by the large southwest facing window beside the table where the artist did all his inside artwork, wrote his many letters, and created a beautifully illustrated journal he sent back home to his family and friends.
“Seven days, Rockie,” his father finally answered. “But it doesn’t look like the steamship will arrive in Seward on time.”
On time for what? -- the boy thought and almost said aloud.
“Bahhh, Christmas,” the old man muttered.
“Won’t we have Christmas? Rockie asked.
“The day will pass as any other day, Mr. Kint (sic)” the old man said in his Swedish accent.
“No Christmas,” Rockie stated with a kind of tragic certainty.
“When I was a child,” the old Swede continued, “we were so poor that I dreaded the day. I never celebrate it. Bahhh on Christmas.”
“Lars, have you ever read Dickens? “A Christmas Carol?” You know, Scrooge and all that?” the artist asked.
“In the old country, one meal a day was present enough. Just a waste of time and money and all this Saint Nicholas monkeyshine.” The old Swede tried to pace in the cramped cabin as if giving a lecture.
“Sounds like you wrote the book,”
Lars Matt Olson was the Swede’s name. He was 71 years old and sometimes called himself an old broken-down frontiersman. And that he was.
The artist was Rockwell Kent II, a conflicted, up and coming painter from New York – precise, charismatic, exasperating, elitist, self-righteous, intense, inspiring, dogmatic, demanding, stubborn, generous, tender, and an incurable romantic. Like Henry Thoreau he would devour the meat then suck out the marrow. He wanted it all in life, everything. In venturing to Alaska, he was running in two directions at once: away from himself and his personal problems, and toward a creative solitude necessary for him to energize his spirit and produce a body of work – paintings and drawings – that would stun the New York art world. At age 36 he felt he was running out of time. He could no longer consider himself as the critics did – that young, promising artist with so much potential. He had a wife and four children to support, and he saw no other option in his life but art. It was that or nothing. In many ways, Alaska was his last-ditch effort, one last attempt to get the fame he needed to support himself as an artist.
The boy was Rockwell Kent III. His mother, Kathleen, called him Rockie and spelled it that way in all her letters. Some knew him as Rock. His father almost always referred to him as Rockwell. He’d never been to public school, and his father continued to teach him his studies on Fox Island. He loved animals with his kind and gentle spirit. Rockie was large for his age and somewhat precocious, which occasionally got him into trouble, as when he first arrived in Seward in August 1918 and bragged to local boys he could count in German – not a popular language to know during the years of the Great War. He would avoid any physical encounter.
In the silence of this December 1918 evening, the artist sat on a storage box by the small cabin’s dinner table watching the clouds dissipate along the Aialik Peninsula outside. Suddenly he emerged from his contemplative state and said, “How could we forget Christmas on a day like today, Rockie? So beautiful, so calm...I need to get this down in my journal.” Olson quickly stepped out of the way as Rockwell Kent stood, hurried to his work table and sat, opened his journal, primed his fountain pen, and wrote: “It is so still with the earth and every branch and tree muffled in deep feathery, new-fallen snow. And all day the softest clouds have drifted lazily over the heavens shrouding the land in veils of falling snow. Golden shadows, dazzling peaks, fairy tracery of branches against the blue summer-like sea.”
Olson left and returned to his cabin. Rockwell read his son a few more chapters from “Robinson Crusoe” and sent him off to bed. Then, by lantern light at his worktable he finished a pen and ink and started another. He desperately wanted to begin painting, but his canvases weren’t prepared, and winter’s descending darkness made it difficult to work inside. Rockie was sound asleep, so the artist wandered outside to admire the falling snow, light and fluffy. A near full moon slid out from behind the clouds brightening the white peaks of the Kenai Mountains. After a few minutes he returned to his worktable and started writing letters; a short one to Hildegarde, reminding her that their relationship was over; a much longer one to Kathleen, assuring her he was now a changed man. It was three o’clock in the morning when he slipped into the bed beside his son.
To be continued
Doug Capra lives in Seward with his wife, Cindy. He’s the author of “The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords,” and the foreword to the reprint of a special edition of “Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska” published by Wesleyan University Press in 1996. Capra is writing a book about the American artist Rockwell Kent who spent the winter of 1918-1919 on Fox Island in Resurrection Bay. The draft of that book in progress can be found online at https://rockwellkentjournal.blogspot.com/.