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Antediluvian Animals by Keely O’Connell


Keely O’Connell grounds her vivid first impressions of Alaska in her creative nonfiction flash “Antediluvian Animals” in concrete images—the astonishing darkness and cold, the “salt grinder sound” of her boots in the snow, the ice fog pouring in the door that “bites at my arms,” the breath that “frosts in my eyelashes,” the utter silence that allows her to hear a raven’s wings. “When it’s that cold, almost nothing makes noise. I look up, startled, when I hear a whipping, almost whistling noise overhead: a raven beating a steady course north. I stop to listen: those black wings tear the air audibly.” The sense of place is also dream-like and enchanted, her disorientation evoked through a network of lyric images: the night spinning up, the whorl of lantern light and snail shell, her dizzy sense of direction, the pin on her mental map “spinning out across the table.”

Birds and animals are more at home in this environment than humans, who bring wreckage and the ravages of climate crisis. The raven waiting for scraps of her food is “looking at me exactly as he would have looked at anyone standing here in this spot, anytime over the last fifteen thousand years; he will take what I have here the second I walk away.”

In her author’s note, O’Connell cites Melville as an unexpected, hidden influence on “Antediluvian Animals”: “Melville’s prose is lush and evocative, and his descriptions of the harsh and alien-to-him landscape and atmosphere of the [Galapagos] islands reminded me immediately—and oddly, since the landscapes are so wildly different—of my first impressions of the Arctic.” Like Melville, O’Connell says, she writes about “the condition of being newly arrived in a surreal and demanding place and of being frightened and enchanted at once.”  —CRAFT


 

The plane lands in the one hour of tilted midday light that January sees daily. I step down onto the icy runway, and my new principal throws my bag into the bed of a red pickup. I climb in after it. As the truck bumps down the road that leads from the airport to the village, I catch glimpses of log cabins, snowmachines parked by the steps, stovepipes trailing flat-topped banners of smoke. Ravens and dogs. The truck stops in front of teacher housing, just across the snow-bound playground from the school where I will teach grades six and up. In the time it takes to carry my backpack inside, night spins up around the village and I get caught in its enchantment.

I don’t see a glimmer of sunlight for days. Every morning, I walk to work in full dark, accompanied by stars and the salt grinder sound of my boots in the snow. My classroom is windowless, and by the time I walk home every evening, the only image in the window over my sink is my own reflection, the white moon of my face pressed against the darkness outside. My world becomes a whorl no bigger than a circle of lantern light, a snail shell, a space station.

Midway through that first week, while the kids are at lunch, it occurs to me to open the fire door in my classroom. Ice fog pours in and the cold bites at my arms, but I can see the pale sky at last, and there—in the distance—mountains to the west.

North of the Arctic Circle, ordinary maps are distorted and useless. My first weeks in Venetie, my sense of direction is dizzy, as if the little red pin on my mental map has up and gone spinning out across the table. Whenever I can find a few minutes of daylight I walk, trying to construct a new cartography. My mind snags on things: a wolverine hide nailed to someone’s fence, a bulldozer half-buried in the snow. These become landmarks.

At forty below, my breath frosts in my eyelashes when I walk. When it’s that cold, almost nothing makes noise. I look up, startled, when I hear a whipping, almost whistling noise overhead: a raven beating a steady course north. I stop to listen: those black wings tear the air audibly. Later, as I crunch by the dump, a raven—the same one?—looks me over, considering. His eyes are glittery and callous.

The days lengthen and my walks stretch. I discover that the most recent tracks near the edge of town are often my own, or rabbit, or fox. Once, I find wolf tracks, wide as my palms in the snow. I push out, little by little, beyond the safety of the houses, and find the rivers, lakes, sloughs, mountains. I grow increasingly certain that the world is no two-dimensional technical drawing, folded for convenience. The world is wilderness, sprawled naked and blameless and willful. The whole village is nothing but sleep dust, easy enough to brush away.

In March, I hop a plane back to Fairbanks, over the Yukon and then over the White Mountains and then, increasingly, over scars. Long ruts in the forest where roads seek destinations. A mountain gutted for a gold mine. Under our wings, the forest fractures into smaller and smaller shards. Miniature houses perch in the wreckage, and toy cars roam through the rubble. The land, more and more, is paved over. Clothed and damaged and bound. Postlapsarian.

In Fairbanks, a raven croaks a knock-knock joke from the corner of the gas station roof. Ruffling his feathers and burbling, he tips his head and fixes me with his shiny black eye. It doesn’t matter a bit to him that I’m standing in a grease-stained parking lot strewn with garbage. He is looking at me exactly as he would have looked at anyone standing here in this spot, anytime over the last fifteen thousand years; he will take what I have here the second I walk away. He will gorge himself on what I leave; he does not fear me; he knows his kin will be here long after I am gone.

“We never used to see that little songbird here,” my friend says one spring. It’s almost midnight, but the sun is high above the horizon and we are sitting on the steps of my cabin taking in the newness. Our breath does not linger and freeze into stale ice in our lashes. Instead, it’s pushed on by cool currents blowing over the last of the melting snow and carrying the green ginger scent of cottonwood sap. The air is busy with chattering birds, and one has landed in the willow by the door. “That one there,” my friend says, “that kind never came this far north before.” Half a mile away the ice has broken and the river is flooding. We can hear it from here: the grinding ice makes a sound like a growl beneath the birdsong.

 


KEELY O’CONNELL is a writer and teacher based in Alaska, where she lives year-round in a yurt. A lover of boats, chainsaws, sled dogs, campfires, and skis, she never gets tired of exploring the wilderness. Her work has appeared in Northwest Review and Hippocampus.

 

Featured image by Sbringser courtesy of Pixabay

 

Author’s Note

This essay was inspired by a series of phrases from The Encantadas, Herman Melville’s gorgeous “sketches” about the Galapagos. Melville’s prose is lush and evocative, and his descriptions of the harsh and alien-to-him landscape and atmosphere of the islands reminded me immediately—and oddly, since the landscapes are so wildly different—of my first impressions of the Arctic. “No voice, no low, no howl is heard; the chief sound of life here is a hiss,” wrote Melville, and I heard the wingbeats of a raven in my memory. I selected short passages from his work, ordered them in a way that spoke to my own experience, and then wrote responses to them that drew on my impressions. In most cases, these were direct parallels inspired by phrases like “washed up on this other and darker world” or “the charts […] accorded with the strange delusion.” I knew those feelings intimately, and found I had a lot to say about the condition of being newly arrived in a surreal and demanding place and of being frightened and enchanted at once. The piece’s collage-y construction is a result of this inspiration.

In one case I chose a phrase that I couldn’t write to directly. Melville wrote, “[T]he special curse […] of the Encantadas […] is that to them change never comes; neither the change of seasons nor of sorrows,” which got me thinking about climate change in the Arctic. A change of seasons and of sorrows. Climate change is too big for a little essay like this, so it wasn’t something I wanted to tackle head on, but it’s there in the piece, just like it’s there in any writing about the natural world now, and I think it’s the element that eventually gave me the confidence to throw out the Melville quotations and let this essay stand alone. After several rounds of revision, the only phrase in the piece that owes anything directly to Melville is the title. He refers to the wonderful Galapagos tortoises as “antediluvian” which is a beautiful word that, when used for something contemporary, suggests an imminent disaster. In my own piece, I imagined that the antediluvian animals were the humans and the ravens, and that the flood was yet to come.

 


KEELY O’CONNELL is a writer and teacher based in Alaska, where she lives year-round in a yurt. A lover of boats, chainsaws, sled dogs, campfires, and skis, she never gets tired of exploring the wilderness. Her work has appeared in Northwest Review and Hippocampus.