By Phyllis Martino-Nugent
Anna Varanskaya scanned the eastern sky from the back door of her father’s luncheonette and general store. Night fell quickly in Alaska in late summer, and Anna felt the air turning cooler on her face as she watched the sun sink into Kotzebue Sound. Soon the long winter night would descend on the tiny fishing village of Noorvik, trapping the inhabitants under a dark blanket of snow and ice. But for now, she listened for the distinctive hum of the mail plane.
Five years ago, when she turned twenty-one, she became the village postmistress. The villagers came to her father’s store twice weekly to pick up their mail, and the mail plane was due today. She would spend the remainder of her afternoon sorting the mail―mostly mail order catalogs mixed with letters from loved ones far away―before cleaning up the luncheonette. Then, she would climb the stairs to her dreary room.
Her interest this afternoon was not limited solely to the mail. The new pilot, Craig Simpson, had arrived two months ago to take over the fledgling mail route. Rumors about Craig swirled from house to house through the village, but Craig Simpson remained a man of mystery―a man with secrets. Anna did not hold that against him. After all, she had secrets of her own.
Anna’s conversations with Craig revolved around the weather and the mail, but she was determined to change that. All anybody knew for certain about the tall blond flier was that he was Canadian and walked with a limp. He sported a patch on his flight jacket indicating he had served with the Royal Flying Corps in the Great War―if the jacket was indeed his.
Not usually shy around the men of her village whom she had known almost her entire life, when she looked into Craig Simpson’s blue eyes, she felt empty-headed and her tongue knotted itself in her dry mouth. She resolved that today would be different. Dressed in a pathetically outdated but clean and pressed shirtwaist blouse and a recently shortened skirt, she waited on the porch to catch sight of him.
At the sound of her father’s familiar tread on the floorboards of the store, she hurried from the porch and ducked behind the rain barrel.
“Anna! Where are you?”
“Out here, Papa.” Anna relinquished her childish hiding place behind the barrel.
Anna’s father pushed open the rickety door and descended the four steps of the porch. His eyes looked her over appreciatively.
“What are you doing out here?”
“I’m waiting for the mail, Papa.” Her words sounded lame even to her own ears.
“Hm. And why are you dressed like that?”
“No reason,” Anna replied, a small sigh escaping from her lips.
Her father sat down on a porch step and took out his pipe and tobacco from his shirt pocket.
“You look nice. Too nice for sorting the mail, I should think,” he remarked, pushing the tobacco into the pipe with his thumb.
“Papa . . .”
“No, no. It’s all right, Anna. You don’t have to explain. But, Annina, take some advice from me. Try not to appear too eager.”
“I’m not,” she said through gritted teeth.
“I’m going to the dogs,” her father said, rising and taking the track leading to the dog pen.
“You certainly are!” she muttered.
“I heard you.”
Anna knew her father would spend hours with his sled dogs―feeding them, cosseting them as he would favored grandchildren. She wondered, not for the first time, if he could read their thoughts like he could hers. She never could keep a secret from her father no matter how hard she tried.
The distant thrum of the plane’s engine sounded in her ears, and she reentered the luncheonette to put on a fresh pot of coffee.
Craig Simpson gripped the stick of the Curtiss ‘Tommy’ and banked into the turn to align the aircraft with the windsock and flat expanse of grass that passed for an airstrip. The village of Noorvik was just one stop on his mail rote that took him along the coast of northwest Alaska. The natural beauty of the mountains and rivers and the sparkling sea filled him with such awe and wonder that sometimes he had to catch himself when a particularly magnificent view took his soul far within God’s bosom. In this wild land, absentmindedness was a sure ticket to an untimely in person meeting with the great Creator of all things.
In the years since the War ended, he knocked around trying to find his place in the world. One day, out of the blue, a buddy from his old squadron tracked him down with a proposition. They could go into business together by buying two surplus planes from the U.S. Government and find themselves the proud owners of a contract from the Territorial Governor to make mail and package deliveries to remote Alaskan villages.
After flying the route for several weeks, he grew accustomed to seeing very few women in the mix of Eskimos, Russians, Finns, Norwegians and the ever-present smattering of Canadians and Americans striving to get rich from the great Alaskan wilderness. They prospected for gold, cut timber, hunted and competed for fish with the natives in fleets of small boats―anything that would turn a dollar.
Nothing had prepared him for his first sight of Anna Varanskaya. The day he dragged the sack of mail into the luncheonette and caught a glimpse of her, he stopped dead in his tracks. Lithe, tall―almost as tall as he―with almond shaped eyes that glowed like amber under her cap of glossy black hair, and skin like the petal of a perfect rose.
The ground came up fast, and he felt the adrenaline rush that fueled his love of flying―like the rush he felt that first day he saw Anna. Putting all thought of Anna aside, he concentrated on landing the plane.
He taxied up to the fuel pump and lowered himself down from the cockpit with a rope―a concession to his poorly healed leg. He checked the plane over, stroking the length of the fuselage like a tender lover before dragging the village’s mailbag out of the tiny cargo section. The plane tied down and wheel-chucks in place, he flung the mailpouch over his shoulder and started up the grassy slope toward the little town that huddled like a crouching brown bear on the crest of the hill.
Anna breathed in the rich aroma of the coffee percolating on the stove while watching for him at the window. She spotted him limping along the path and went out to greet him.
He smiled the moment he saw her. She reached out for the bag, but he waved her hand away and mounted the steps stiffly and slowly.
“Is that coffee I smell?” he asked her as he stood eye to eye with her on the porch.
“Yes,” she answered turning to enter the building and feeling a warm flush rise from the neck of her blouse.
He followed her in. “Do you think you can drum up a sandwich to go with it?”
“I think I can,” she answered, “and maybe some cheese and berry pie too.”
“Sounds great,” he said. He bent and dropped the mailpouch inside the door and gave her a quick smile. She noticed how his smile reached his eyes.
They sat across from each other at the table, the mailbag all but forgotten.
“That was a wonderful meal. Thank you,” Craig said as he downed the last drops of coffee in his cup.
Anna poured him another cup while carefully weighing how she would begin a meaningful conversation with him, one that would tell her all she wanted to know about him.
Resuming her seat, she took a deep breath and plunged ahead. “I hope you don’t mind my asking, but what made you want to come to Alaska?”
Craig looked down and fiddled with his coffee before answering. “I like the way you put that. Not what made me come to Alaska, but what made me want to come to Alaska.”
Anna shrugged a shoulder. “Well, I’m curious about what would make anyone want to come here.”
“There’s a future to be had here, Anna, and I want to be part of it. Just look around you, beyond the beauty of the country, there’s an abundance of possibilities,” he responded with a faraway look in his eyes.
“And what do you want your future to hold?”
“My dreams are big. I want to own a fleet of airplanes. Last year, I saw a 1927 Ford Trimotor come off the assembly line. A real beauty. What an advancement on my little ‘Tommy.’ You gotta admire that Henry Ford. It’s progress; you can’t escape it. What about you?”
And so the conversation went. Anna held on to her secrets and learned a lot more about Craig than he did about her.
She rose and lit the whale oil lamps in the luncheonette. He left to find a room at the boarding house for the night, and after he left, Anna remembered the unopened mail bag.
Anna’s father found her still sorting the mail by lamplight when he returned from tending his sled dogs. She stopped when he entered the room and cleared a space on the table for their supper. A stew bubbled on the stove, and he sat wordlessly waiting to be served.
Anna dished out the stew as her mind wandered toward Craig. She could not contain her feelings of jealousy, and these feelings made her feel guilty. He had wings. He could fly away, see new places and possibilities. She was stuck in this place and this numbing routine that offered her nothing but an endless future of more of the same.
As summer faded to autumn, Anna blossomed. Because of Craig, she looked forward to the future. The days he visited Noorvik meant the world to her. She would feed him lunch at the table in the store, and then they would take a walk where they would not be seen or overheard. Anna treasured these walks with Craig. They shared a love of nature and would hold hands as they planned their future. She knew she was falling in love with him, and it frightened her a little.
“Look!” Anna said and Craig saw a herd of caribou at the stream. Anna grabbed Craig’s hand and pulled him down with her in the tall grass. They watched the caribou calves frolic in the water, and after a few minutes, when the herd moved off, Craig and Anna remained where they were. Anna realized she still held Craig’s hand in hers. She released his hand and stretched out on her back looking up at the clouds. Craig picked a piece of grass and lay down next to her.
“What do you see?” he asked.
“All kinds of things―birds, angels,” she answered. Craig chewed on the grass and eyed her lazily. He flicked the grass away.
“You’re an angel,” he said, but thinking to himself, it’s now or never.
Before she could protest, he moved quickly and covered her mouth in a kiss. Her eyes flew open in surprise before she returned his kiss. In his arms, her fears evaporated like the mist of a summer morning.
One morning a few days later, while Anna was busy packing up some food for Craig to take on his plane, her father confronted her.
“The whole village is talking, Anna; did you think no one noticed the walks that you and this pilot take. He’s not good enough for you. Anna, I am telling you this for your own good.”
“Right, Papa, for my own good. And how could I have forgotten myself to love a man . . .”
“You have royal blood flowing through your veins. That you must not forget.”
“There’s not much chance of that when you forever keep reminding me. But tell me, Papa, what has this royal blood ever done for me?”
They had lapsed into Russian. Craig entered the store to raised voices and glaring looks between father and daughter. Anna’s father stomped out past Craig without acknowledging him, leaving him standing by the door, afraid to say anything that might upset Anna even further. Craig was even more afraid to pry into what was obviously none of his business.
Anna glanced at Craig and quickly looked away. He came and stood behind her and rested his hands on her shoulders.
“Is everything all right? Do you want to talk about it?”
“No. It’s nothing really. My father’s a foolish . . .” she caught herself, “a very impractical man.”
“But he loves you.”
“He loves his pride more.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that because of his pride, he would condemn me to a life of loneliness.”
She turned and faced him. “You might as well know. He thinks no one is good enough for me because the blood of the Romanovs flows in my veins.”
Craig stared at her in amazement, and then let out a low whistle. “The Tsar?”
“Yes. We’ve hidden here in this village for ten years, those of us who were lucky enough to escape the wrath of the murderers who toppled the Tsar. We fool ourselves into believing we are safe, but we know they can come whenever they choose.”
“How many are you?”
“Father, me, a priest, a few others. In my father’s mind, the Romanovs live on. It killed my mother, coming here. She stopped eating and died that first winter. Nothing in her life had ever prepared her for this place. She called it ‘brutal.’ And it was.”
Craig wrapped his arms around her, and she leaned into him. He held her and waited.
“What has all this sorrow have to do with you?” he asked finally.
“My father believes that one day, it will be through me that our family will recover the ancient glory of the Romanovs. That one day there will be a prince to marry me and produce another generation of Romanovs to sit upon the Russian throne. And so, I’m supposed to wait for him―sacrifice my happiness for a dead dream.”
At a loss for words, he looked into her eyes―made more beautiful, if that was possible, by the tears he saw glistening there.
“Now you know my secret,” Anna whispered.
Craig tilted her chin up and kissed her mouth, tasting her hot tears on his lips.
“Everything will be all right, Anna, you’ll see. Our lives are joined, my love, and there is nothing and no one that can keep us apart.”
“If only it were so,” Anna answered.
“I have to go, but I’ll find a way, I promise you. We’ll give your father no choice. When I return, we’ll go to the priest. He’ll marry us and then we’ll decide what we will do―together.”
“Just like that?”
“Yes, just like that.”
Anna’s father entered the kitchen for his evening meal, and as always, his dinner was waiting for him. They ate in silence, both lost in their own thoughts. Once, Anna’s father glanced up from his plate at his daughter. Even in the low light, he detected the curve of a smile on his daughter’s cheek.
“Why are you smiling? . . .You’re thinking of that young man.”
“So now it’s a crime to smile in this house?” Anna retorted, rising from the table. Anna started to walk away, and then stopped. Turning back, she lost control. “You forget this is my house too. I’ll smile if I want too, or anything else. If you want me gone, just say so.” The taste of her food grew bitter in her mouth, as bitter as her father’s heart.
The vehemence of her words and the expression on her face startled him, and for once, he said nothing.
That evening, Anna ran up the stairs to her room as if her feet had wings, knowing she would soon be with Craig far away from this house with its sadness and discord. She locked her door and went straightaway to the open window. As she reached for the handle to pull the window closed, she heard the sharp call of a male ptarmigan summoning his mate to their nest for the night.
She looked up at the stars filling the night sky and made a wish on the first star she saw. She wished she were that bird whose feathers were turning from brown to white. The ptarmigan had her mate, she thought. Was she so wrong to wish for the same?
How foolish I am, she rebuked herself. I shouldn’t have wasted my wish on something as silly as wishing to be a bird. If only mother were here to help me, to guide me, she thought. Now that was something worth wishing for.
She lit the lamp by her bed. As the lamplight spread its warm glow in her room, she turned toward her mother’s trunk which sat under the window like a dark and brooding sentinel from another age.
Anna opened the lid and looked inside. As though her wish had come true and her mother was really here, Anna detected the scent her mother wore―Lily of the Valley―that came up to greet her. She rummaged around in the trunk, lifting a few items out of the way, until she found what she was searching for.
Her mother’s icon, wrapped in a silk cloth, lay undisturbed at the bottom of the trunk. In a Russian household, it normally held a place of honor, but her father had banished it to the trunk after her mother’s death.
Anna took the icon from the trunk and placed it on her dresser. Kneeling down before it, she recited the prayers she had learned as a child from her mother. Once she exhausted all the prayers she remembered, she spoke to God and asked for help. She asked her mother for her guidance as well.
Please understand, she prayed, and don’t let me become bitter like father. I can’t stay here any longer. I love Craig, and if he goes, I must go too. She got up from her knees and climbed into bed. Its presence on her dresser comforted her, and she feel into a dreamless sleep.
Snow began to fall during the night. The first storm of the season lasted two full days. Even as Anna went about her duties, she peered over and over out the windows, wishing for the storm to end. She watched as the world became as white and quiet as a marble tomb. She went to the icon often in those two days to pray.
She prayed for Craig’s safety. Was he flying or safely on the ground waiting out the storm? She prayed for his return and the success of their plan. She prayed too that peace would penetrate her father’s heart, that he would give up his foolish dream of reclaiming the Russian throne and that instead he would be happy for her.
Later, she would wonder if she had prayed for too much―had been too greedy.
Craig flew north and east from Nome and made his first stop. An hour after his take off, he knew he was in trouble. A storm front like a massive white wall loomed directly in his path. Before zero visibility overtook him, he searched the terrain looking for a place to land. He saw nothing but endless forest, and with a sinking feeling, he knew he would have to ride out the storm as best he could.
As the front washed over him, he gripped the stick―white-knuckled―and struggled to keep the nose up and into the wind. He worked the rudder with his feet to keep the plane from rolling as strong winds buffeted him on all sides. He skimmed low over the trees trying to use the thermal updrafts to lessen the forming of ice on the plane’s canvas skin and had to rely solely on the compass cradled in his lap to maintain his heading. He used every trick he knew to stay aloft.
He thought of Anna. He would never regret loving her, but if he didn’t make it back to her―no, he stopped himself from thinking like that―he had to make it through.
People came and went from the luncheonette bringing the clean scent of snow and the north wind with them. Anna worked mindlessly, her ears pricked for the sound of Craig’s plane. The storm had ended leaving behind four feet or more of powdery snow, but by nightfall, when Craig still hadn’t appeared, she had to face the worst.
He was lost. The truth hit her like a blow to the heart.
Even if his plane went down in the storm, she refused to give up on him. She felt to her innermost core that he was still alive somewhere out there―alive and probably hurt. He needed her now more than ever. A weight like a mighty stone lodged in her chest, and nothing would shift it but going out to search for him. With dry eyes and tight throat, she laid her plans for rescue.
Anna pulled her sealskin parka and warm boots from beneath her bed. Laying aside the supplies she needed, she prepared to set out at first light. She stuffed the provisions into a waterproof bag she could tote over her shoulder and added her meager medicines, bandages, a revolver and knife, and hid everything in the luncheonette.
Her fur-lined boots made no sound as she crept down the stairs at dawn the next morning. She stopped just outside the back door and untied the snowshoes hanging from a leather strap on the wall. She tied them across her back and stepped down off the porch, congratulating herself on making it out undetected. She took no more than a few steps in the powdery drifts when she heard her father’s voice behind her.
“I thought you would try something like this,” her father growled, shattering the stillness of the morning.
“He’s alive, Papa. I have to go to him.”
“And how will you find him?”
“He showed me his flight map. I know his route, and I will find him.”
“He’s probably already dead, fodder for the wolves.”
“Shut up!” Anna shouted, amber sparks shooting from her eyes.
“I could stop you.”
Anna turned to leave, but her father blocked her path. She thought she had a fight on her hands, but instead he smiled at her.
“Well, you’re stubborn. You get that from me, you know. I knew last night by the set of your jaw that there would be nothing for it but to help you.”
“You’re willing to help me?” Anna asked, taking a step back in surprise.
“I’ve got the dogs and sled all ready. Supplies, guns. Two on a dog sled will make much better time than one on foot. Him, I don’t care about, but I won’t lose my daughter.”
“Papa. I don’t know what to say.” Anna felt tears well up and wiped them away impatiently.
The dogs raced effortlessly over the snow making excellent time. As they headed due south and hugged the coastline, Anna looked for any sign where Craig’s plane might have gone down.
“He may have been blown off course in the storm, so we’ll keep to the coast and then go inland and head further north,” Anna told her father when they stopped to rest the dogs.
Anna’s father merely nodded. She got something to eat from their pack. The dogs lay in their harnesses, and Anna saw that they never took their eyes from her father as he moved among them.
After the dogs had been fed and they had their meal, they headed inland and turned north following the map Anna had on which she had marked Craig’s flight plan. She hoped the good weather would hold and luck would be on their side.
The weak sun began its rapid descent, and by the mid-afternoon, they were running out of time and daylight. That would mean abandoning the search and turning back or spending the night out in the cold forest to continue in the morning.
Anna’s father pulled up the sled by a rocky outcrop and got off. He climbed to the top of the rock formation and fired off a shot from his revolver. Then he climbed back onto the sled and set off again.
Anna had no chance to question her father before he started the dogs off again. She cast a questioning glance at him, but he only looked down at her and mouthed the word “signal.” They traveled for another ten minutes or so, with the wind whistling past them drowning out any possibility of conversation.
Her father stopped the sled again and fired another shot.
“If he is alive, he will know we are looking for him and signal back to us.”
They traveled on and on. Four more times, Anna’s father fired his revolver. Anna listened for an answering shot but none came. She was about to give up hope, but no sooner had the echo of her father’s last shot receded, then an answering shot fired from their right made them swivel their heads in that direction.
Anna’s father turned the dogs to the right with a wild “Gee Up!” They pursued the illusory sound of the gunshot, already fading away.
The dogs hurtled down a game trail. Up ahead, Anna spotted what looked like a piece of aircraft wing. It hung from the top of a mighty Sitka spruce like a Christmas ornament.
They reached him just as the sun dipped below the horizon. Anna raced to the plane. She found him crumpled in the airplane―or what was left of his plane. He smiled up at her―his smile as sweet as she remembered―but his blue eyes were dull with pain.
“That was my last shot,” he murmured to Anna as she covered his face with kisses.
Craig’s leg was broken. He had lain in his wreck fighting off the cold and predators for two nights and three days. He survived on snow and the little food he had with him.
“I don’t think I could have lasted through another night, Anna. And wouldn’t you know it,” he said with a rueful grin, “my bad leg is all right. It’s the other one got broke. Now I’ve got a matched set.”
Anna’s father peeked in the plane and said to Anna, by way of observation, “there are four dead wolves out here.”
“Papa, please bring me my pack and the sheepskin. Then cut me three straight and study branches―I’ll splint his leg while you start a fire.”
They passed the night with Anna’s father standing guard and tending the fire. Craig ate and spent a restful night by the fire, wrapped with Anna under the blankets and her sheepskin. Two more wolves that failed to respond to warning shots were killed by Anna’s father.
In the morning, they put Craig into the dogsled and broke camp. Anna squeezed into the seat next to Craig. She smiled at him, happy to see his color returning and a little of the sparkle returning to those blue eyes she loved so well.
“So, tell me. Was this your plan?” Anna whispered in Craig’s ear while the dogs sped them home to begin their life together.
Craig grinned at her and winked.
“It brought your father to our side and us together. I’d say my plan worked just fine.”