The Funeral

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Ferries, funerals, purse straps, Sitka, Angoon, Alaska, grandmothers, dangly earrings, fauxhawks, engines, cargo pockets, solariums, green pickups, bivy sacks, Maritime Security & Eternity.

By Plane, Part One

She is in her seventies with a solid frame and a mannish nose and we will share a death but not our names. She wears a big khaki-colored jacket full of cargo pockets in which she rummages first to check on her half-spent cigarette, later for a damp tissue. Wrappers come out, go back in without inspection. Betcha this pen is dead, she crows, transferring a chewed ballpoint from somewhere in a breast pocket to a Velcro flap by her thigh. I may have seen hands like this before, but can’t place them. Something I say about the chewed pen delights her, so her eyes scrunch closed and the bridge of her mannish nose scrunches too and she purses her lips so that only her two front teeth show in this thing of a smile. Leaning left and right in a couple of quick sways, she finger-fans her face and chortles. It is a gravelly cooing.

She addresses anyone who lingers in the aisle, anyone who looks like they might be assigned the center seat in our row, calling out, Are you nice? We like ’em nice—and thunking my arm with the back of her hand—we like ’em nice, don’t we. Yes, we do. But we also agree that the value of nice airplane seatmates is surpassed by the absence of said seatmates. We high-five over the point. Plane rides to Alaska can be giddy and self-congratulatory like this. Particularly in December.

I’ve called her mannish, but then there’s her tawny hair, thin and full of air so that it doesn’t much hide the skin of her skull. It’s a nearly troubling trace of femininity, for it is, despite itself, revealing. At least she is free of the handbag; this is a woman who didn’t bring a purse. Or anything else. She doesn’t need anything to “do” during the flight. She will sleep under her jacket’s cavernous hood, because she won’t have bothered to take off her jacket on the plane. She won’t bother taking off her jacket now, and later, she won’t bother to zip it shut, even though four days of steady snow will shift to freezing rain within minutes of our flight’s touchdown. She hasn’t any idea which pocket holds her wallet and which holds her cigarettes, but I figure she has the old habit of finding what she needs by patting herself from the breasts down, both hands at a time.

I don’t actually know what kind of car her daughter drives. But we are flying to Alaska, so I do know what kind of car her daughter drives. Her daughter drives a Subaru.

They’re too long, these hands. And brown, too brown. Skin like a discarded paper bag, stained with uneven freckled blotches, tight, brittle, susceptible to tearing. Hands with intelligence, though. Hands that have worked, that are competent, that may commit sly acts in and among those pockets with or without this woman’s intent. Four kids, she says now and again, leaning in to conspire about this or that and snapping back to falsely innocent attention when a flight attendant squeezes past. She says she is always getting in trouble with those people; I riff on airplane authority, and she roars. Later, she will pull that khaki-colored hood over her head, tug the strings on either side, and snore inside its cave, a cave from which only her strong hooked nose protrudes. Things are well in hand. She’ll wake up in Alaska and someone else will heft her checked bags, overstuffed with what-all for the grandkids, into the trunk of her daughter’s Subaru.

I don’t actually know what kind of car her daughter drives. But we are flying to Alaska, so I do know what kind of car her daughter drives. Her daughter drives a Subaru.

By Ferry, Part One

A euro-hawk is not a straight mohawk. No, a euro-hawk is classified as a fauxhawk variant and involves longer hair down the center of the head and shorter hair on the sides. I will tell someone about the little girl on the ferry growing out her mohawk and will be corrected: it sounds more like a euro-hawk.

But at the moment she’s unclassified, a spiny and feral seven-year-old evading supervision and putting her hands over her ears. Patting them slowly, then faster. Opened, closed, open, close. Opencloseopencloseopen. I remember doing this when my mother ran the vacuum, and do the same. We don’t smile across the deck of the ferry, but we watch each other and pat our ears, listening to the alternate muffling and roaring of the boat engines. When this girl runs over to me, it’s to shout that she can make the sound of a duck. She cups her hands over her mouth and I have to lean in close to hear the duck over the engines of the ferry. We’re out on the deck under the solarium contending with the drone of diesel, the drone of wind and the drone of ripped water getting split into those twin waves that peel away off the hull. Our faces are pink from cold and salt. We like it out here. When she makes a duck sound I see she has one missing front tooth and one grown-up tooth coming in.

A well-kept grandmother with dangly earrings and a new polar fleece is here to interrupt. The fleece is not sufficient for her summer trip to Alaska, I gather, because she walks tight and hunched against the air. New fleece says to the girl, Are you bothering people again? I will her away, ask the girl what kind of duck. A mallard, she answers, apologizing that she doesn’t know if she’s doing it right. But a mallard.

The grandmother is visiting from Michigan. Her son teaches school in Sitka and he and his wife are raising their daughter there, so the grandmother comes to Alaska to visit family. She took her granddaughter to Juneau for the weekend and they’re ferrying home to Sitka today, is that where I’m going? Yes. This ferry’s only other stop is the Native village of Angoon, a pretty private place. She thinks Sitka’s so pretty, don’t I? Of course I do. And so is Juneau, but Sitka’s just unbeatable. Of course it is. But she could never live there, could I, because her, no, not with bears all the time and rain all the time and dark winters and only however many stoplights—do I know how many stoplights there are in Sitka?—well, believe her, it’s a lot less than Lansing and she likes bears plenty, just not so all the time as in Sitka.

Juneau: population 30,000. Mostly on the mainland. At the mouth of Lynn Canal, north of Taku Inlet. Eleven percent Native. Sixty miles from Angoon.

Juneau: population 30,000. Mostly on the mainland. At the mouth of Lynn Canal, north of Taku Inlet. Eleven percent Native. Sixty miles from Angoon.

Angoon: population 450. A Tlingit village on Admiralty Island at the mouth of Kootznahoo Inlet, off of Chatham Strait. Eighty-two percent Native. Forty miles from Sitka.

Sitka: population 9,000. On the outer coast of Baranof Island. Twenty-five percent Native. Not particularly shielded from the Gulf of Alaska by Kruzof Island’s 3,200-foot dormant volcano, Mount Edgecumbe. Road system: fourteen miles long.

By Ferry, Part Two

It’s the kids who come and go from the solarium during those early minutes leaving port. The solarium is outside, up top and at the back of the ferry; it’s kind of a three-sided greenhouse area with scratched, warped plastic paneling on the sides and roof, and it shields a section of the deck from rain and sleet. There is no fourth wall; the ferry’s back deck extends out from the solarium. Everyone wants to sit indoors out of the weather, but no one can get their kids to stay still, so they go indoors, outdoors, upstairs, downstairs. They’re excited. Discovering the ferry, learning the layout of the cafeteria and the lounge and finding out how forcefully toilets flush on a boat.

A little later, when the kids are bored to pieces or plugged into electronics, there is a lull in traffic to the solarium. No one out there but me.

The marine highway has a bothersome aesthetic policy, which is that all of our ferries have an American flag attached to the back, a flag that whips around with violence in the wind of sea travel. If you’re going to bundle up and sit outside in the solarium, nestled in your sleeping bag on a plastic lawnchair under ineffective heat lamps, you end up planted at roughly eye level with the American flag attached to the back of the boat. It is red and white and blue and flinging around between you and everything you might care to look at, slapping itself over and over and over. Hours of ferry travel are good for checking out avalanche chutes and ridgeline cornices or to scan the water for wildlife, fishing boats, driftwood, anything. But somehow my eyes always settle back on the snaking red and white stripes. I find myself fixed and staring, mind lulled into something mushier than is pleasant, and the next time, a bit mushier still.

It’s early in the ferry ride, though, so I’m not alone for long because the kids’ antsiness transfers two generations up and now retirees need to stretch their legs. They filter outside onto the deck, bending their knees, zipping the necks of new coats, fussing with the wristbands of their gloves. It’s gorgeous out here but they’re chilled, have been all week, probably will be until the connecting flight they catch in Seattle delivers them back to the tarmac of whatever city’s July they’ve traded in for a glimpse of the north.

Once we’re hours into the ride, with hours more to go, anyone could be drifting out into the solarium. Professionals of various stripes come out for a smoke. God, it’s beautiful—the mountains—oh, look! Look out at that, look over here, look at whatever I’m looking at so that we’re both looking at it. An adjusted purse strap, a flick of the ash. Full disclosure: In this paragraph there’s no telling the tourists from the locals. Adults in general are uniformly exclamatory about the view and fixated on directing the attention of others.

God, it’s beautiful—the mountains—oh, look! Look out at that, look over here, look at whatever I’m looking at so that we’re both looking at it. 

The tap dancers, however, are different. I place them in their mid-fifties. They wear sunglasses, down vests and mid-leg zip-off hiking pants in earthy hues. Quick-drying, and paired with reasonably sidewalk-worn sneakers. He has a peppered white beard; she has dark loose curls. They come out to the solarium and tap side by side, then him in front and her behind. They’re quite good. And then they look a bit at the sun on the sea and the snow on the mountains and go back in. Both pairs of hands remain pocketed throughout.

The Funeral

The way to coax them into letting you step off the ferry when it pauses in Angoon is to skip the purser’s desk and go straight down to the car deck. Look for someone in a fluorescent yellow vest, because the people in fluorescent yellow know how things work. They know which ferry terminals have empty vending machines, what the current Maritime Security level is and who at each port is and isn’t going to hassle loitering backpackers when MARSEC is on orange. Because they manage the car deck, they also know everything about their passengers: whose dog, alone for hours, has been barking all day in the belly of the boat, who walked on with a kayak and will need a hand hauling it up the ramp, who was forced to park too close to a gigantic rented RV and will have to crawl across the passenger’s seat to start their own vehicle, whose gas container or rifle is locked in the car-deck gun case, as well as who’s wandered off the ferry and needs to wander back on before the next sailing gets underway. The people in fluorescent yellow are not authoritarian and are not in charge. They are simply indispensable.

We dock in Angoon and the fluorescent I accost has a face so young that her squash-colored ponytail seems both holy and babyish. It’s hair reminiscent of the silver fuzz marking certain newborns as angelic and ghostly, newborn fuzz that hums with its own glow, that still sends a shiver down a mother’s spine long after it has faded into something normal and mammalian. When I ask her if I have time to get off the ferry for a few minutes, she turns and her huge yellow vest pushes against my whole side body because she’s leaned in to add discretion to the news: They’re having a funeral! Her body is soft and I think to step back, but don’t, and answer her pressure with my own. Her body is soft and they are having a funeral and because we are pressed against one another and my question is unanswered, we make small talk. I learn that yes, the body is getting buried here in Angoon, and no, the death didn’t happen in Juneau, the body was only sent there to be embalmed, and did I know what she means, because she doesn’t think they do that here, but maybe if I just walk off the ferry up the ramp I can ask Carey in the parking lot how long we have in port.

They’re having a funeral! Her body is soft and I think to step back, but don’t, and answer her pressure with my own. 

She turns away and there is a new and immediate chill where our torsos have separated, lighting an odd sadness in the place where her warmth has vanished. The temperature of the absence is heavier, somehow, than was the weight of being pressed against her.

At the top of the ramp, Carey has a neon vest too, but it’s orange. He squints and is shaved more cleanly than necessary. Is it okay if I get off the ferry, walk around some? There’s a funeral, he answers. I nod, and so does he. I ask my question again. A sigh. You probably have a few minutes. Five? I ask him. Or twenty-five. Or probably less? He signals the pickup at the base of the ramp and says to me that there’s not really anywhere to go. My silent retort is that there’s nowhere not to go. Pretty great beach over there, I answer. Carey glances. Never been. It’s a good beach. Do you think fifteen minutes. Well. We won’t leave without you, he says, and I step off the ramp into the ferry-terminal parking lot. It’s an okay gravel pad a couple miles outside the village.

I’ve bivied in this parking lot in years past, each time a 3 a.m. ferry drop-off left me stranded with camping gear I couldn’t pack until daybreak. I’ve launched my kayak a number of times from this spot. But now it’s midday and everything is easy when a girl gets herself off the false flatness of a parking lot and onto the rocky mellow incline between sea and mountainside. There are these rocks down there, layered, moguls of exposed bedrock, but colored like the belly of a clam or like the cream-green interior of a shell. I don’t know why all the other rocks in this archipelago seem to be blue-grey shales, but they are, and these ones aren’t. It’s their sweepy layers that make them look all the more like shells, massive ones. Bedrock made of curls may well be set down by the mollusk of the earth, calcium deposit by calcium deposit, to cage its own translucent underbelly somewhere under the sea.

But I don’t walk far, and when I’m back in sight of the ferry the gravel pad has become choked with vehicles and a crowd. The ferry can’t load and depart; a green pickup truck with the body in back has stopped twenty yards off the ramp and everyone has gathered. The parking lot is filled with a crowd that can’t be parted to load the ferry because someone’s talking. Slowly.

The funeral has started early; we are having it in the parking lot. The mood isn’t dark, but there’s an older gal in a purple fleece in charge of weeping, leaning alternately on various folks’ arms, then steadying herself with the tops of children’s heads. Big young Native moms press toddlers to their hips or stand tilting forward, leaning on strollers. Virtually all the women wear sweatpants. Young Native dads mill around in overly baggy jeans, sort of watching one child or another, any of which may or may not be their own, and the toddlers bustle around the parking lot. Adolescents pod up, giggle, make no sound. No one, in fact, makes any sound, because an elder is speaking over the body. He’s by the truck and I can’t hear him, can’t even tell when he’s gone back into English from the Tlingit. In both languages his is thick, thick speech, consonants slow and dense. Oldforest treetalk. It’s speech that makes the most sense alongside the sound of rain, speech built to be joined by that of the ravens, their irony. It’s speech no one listens to. The crowd is respectful, silent, but not paying attention.

People enjoying gathering. There’s been a loss, but it’s enjoyable; they like it that they have assembled in the ferry-terminal parking lot, that everyone’s out in the same place. An eagle flies low over the little crowd, peering into it, and most people don’t look up but two men behind me watch the raptor and agree in slow whispers that he’s been watching and considers it to be over now, finished.

It? What is it? Does the eagle see a resolution in the funeral before any of the people do, before they rouse themselves for dispersal? What is it that’s over for the eagle when the people don’t budge under the stilted, inaudible words of the elder? The elder is inspired but he is also frail. He seems almost to nod off while speaking and keeps one hand on the side of the green pickup truck partly in a posture of authority and partly to stay awake. What is it that the eagle has dismissed?

Eternity comes and goes and six blue-jeaned guys climb into the back of the green pickup. They sit three to a side in the bed of the truck, the body between them in what appears to be a black plastic fish box.

Eternity comes and goes and six blue-jeaned guys climb into the back of the green pickup. They sit three to a side in the bed of the truck, the body between them in what appears to be a black plastic fish box. Cardboard sheets are strapped to its sides. A button blanket and a wooden carving lie on top; the blanket is a glorious primary blue, primary-red-rimmed and totemically patterned with spaced white buttons. I can’t get a clear view of the button blanket, but the carving looks like wolf. None of this is arranged to disguise the black plastic and the cardboard; even from a distance it looks like a big fish box in back, but it’s not, it’s a body, and she was a lot of people’s great-grandmother. She has come from Juneau in a plastic box with cardboard sheets strapped to the sides and tribal regalia sitting on top. Followed by another pickup truck packed with store-bought bouquets, she has been met at the ferry terminal by a couple hundred people. Headed into the dark seaside forest, the flower truck will follow the fish-boxed body with a load of tiger lilies. Its bed is full of five-gallon buckets packed with cellophaned bunches of them.

No one is shushing the weeper in purple polar fleece, no one is rude to the elder who may or may not be blessing the body in the parking lot and no one is distressed by the child in grey who has been marching about, perhaps for hours, nearly dripping with a diaper leak. The large wet region on the front of its little grey sweatsuit just spreads, producing no reaction. It is difficult to take this in stride.

In another life, the ferry is back underway and it’s only a couple of hours to Sitka. I pass the time copying passages from Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay.” Example: You remember too much, my mother said to me recently. Why hold on to all that? And I said, where can I put it down? She shifted to a question about airports.

By Plane, Part Two

Even on the plane to Alaska, where you always know someone and feel good greeting them, where you accidentally make new friends and arrive somehow bonded to everyone else who went north that day—even on such a flight, travel is evasion. It’s cutting loose, not looking back. There’s a jostle of connection, of banding together, but like all travel there’s schism folded in, and lone secrecy at the core.

The woman in her cargo-pocketed jacket is flying to Juneau for solstice and ferrying to Angoon for Christmas and what about me. But the word Angoon blooms this ferry-halting parking-lot funeral into my mind and now I am telling her about it, for I must return to the funeral out loud, to the parking lot with the state ferry stuck, unable to load, while the villagers have a speech they can’t hear. She is in her cargo-pocket jacket and I am twisting toward her under my seatbelt, poking a good sturdy stick of memory into the campfire between us. We’re two travelers leaning into the same orange heat, and I say something of my fondness for Angoon. I say once there was a funeral, and I say the ferry just waited, and already she has clapped those awful blotched hands. She has clapped them and crows to me about the truck of cellophaned lilies, and I say yes, I say yes was she really there, I say yes and does she remember the weeper in purple polar fleece and she says yes, howls it nearly, volleying back about the eagle’s dismissal; do I remember its sweet low glide? We tumble like this on last summer’s ferry, the campfire between us throwing sparks that zip up and out, trails bright and fast and always gone, traceless paths already lost as they are lit.


Corinna Cook is a lifelong Alaskan who is currently chipping away at a PhD in creative writing at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her nonfiction appears here and there, including Flyway and Alaska Quarterly Review.


Lead image: JLS Photography

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