On Cannon Beach
by Marta Randall

For the students of Haystack '83

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Toleman found me slumped near my equipment, said he couldn't afford to lose me, too, and gave me a week's leave. Typical of him; a week was not long enough to catch a transport out of the Rainier Ice Station and back again, and not long enough to go anywhere on foot - he wanted me close by, where his generosity could be easily interrupted by the unfortunate press of work. So sorry, my dear. Unavoidable. Here's your cryometer - go. 

Of the original fourteen on the crew, only seven of us remained and we knew Toleman well enough to anticipate his acts of generosity and work around them. That night Marti accidentally misplaced the keys to Toleman's LandCat, Jerry accidentally forgot to lock the transport pool door, and Gretch accidentally left two full cans of gas strapped in place. I took off well before dawn. A week of being short-handed would cool Toleman's anger at the theft - it always did.

The drive south was depressing. Small, sad towns littered the sides of the collapsing highway, their empty buildings and icy streets interrupting blasted brown fields or the skeletons of forests. Neither roads nor habitations had been built to withstand great cold and the ice had come quickly: increasing cloudiness had given us progressively colder summers, until one hard winter laid down the first ice, and the next cool summer had not melted the pack. A second hard winter deflected more of the sun's heat; the next summer the nascent glaciers bounced even more sunlight back to space. The pattern established itself: a colder winter, a colder summer, and now glaciers marched down the sides of mountains linking one to the other and freezing the northern latitudes. For all our observing and metering and evacuating, this sudden, speedy ice age was upon us and no one, least of all the beleaguered scientists, could tell when, or if, it would end. Hard winters were now a foregone conclusion; cold destroyed the work of hands and by next January this land, too, would be under the ice. 

I slept that night in a schoolhouse amid the detritus of evacuation. MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER BUILT THIS TOWN read a spray-painted message on the wooden door. I put my fingertips to the words. Salvage crews had been through the area already, taking whatever they found necessary and important and removing it to the increasingly crowded south. But who would save the real memories, the important, mundane trivia of the world before the ice? Not me. My job was to monitor the glaciers, measure the progress of the hungry ice, observe the rubble of broken homes and broken lives swept tidily before the glaciers' skirts. I touched the faded words again, wriggled into my down bag, and tried to sleep. 

I crossed into Oregon the next day, on highways pitted and buckled by the cold, and on impulse skirted the dead city of Portland and drove west. Glaciers surrounded the state, the Cascades were impassable, but the ocean's warmth should keep the coast bearable; pines still survived where oak and manzanita once flourished. Evacuation had been more recent and more hasty here, but I expected no other people, and met none. 

Glacial streams had washed out the last three miles of road. I switched tires for treads and bumped down the sides of the coast range. The sky was high and white with fog, the road north blocked by fallen trees and bridges. I turned south, looking for a place to stay. 

The sign said "Cannon Beach" and two bedraggled, stubborn manzanita grew beside it. I drove toward the sea. 

Sagging homes lined the road, roofs caved in by last year's snow or the fall of dead trees. Wind gusted through broken windows along the main street; a door creaked and slammed and creaked again. Cold had killed the ferns, hollyhocks, azaleas, and rhododendrons. Like much of the animal life, these plants would not be replaced by their colder-climate counterparts; the speed of glaciation prevented it. Road and town ended together where a concrete culvert had succumbed to the cold and the torrents of the spring melt, taking the pavement with it. I backed the LandCat, found a side street to the beach, and drove along the tide line. A huge, beehive-shaped rock loomed over the surf. The town looked better from here, less obviously dead. Waves fell against the sand, gray and white beneath a gray sky. I skirted piles of driftwood and the wrack of storms. 

Toward evening I selected a house beside one of the clear; non- glacial streams feeding into the ocean. The top story had collapsed but the beach level seemed wind-tight and secure. A huge iron stove stood inside the door, but I couldn’t easily tell if the flue and chimney were intact and was too tired to check it out. I built a driftwood fire on the beach, ate of the supplies Joshua had accidentally left in the LandCat, staggered back inside and into my sleeping bag, and fell asleep to the noise of  surf. 

I woke to the smell of frying fish and a high, cracked voice saying, "About time you wake up. Only breakfast I serve, nothing else, just bed and breakfast and breakfast is at dawn. I have too much to do to wait on my people. That your car?" 

Without moving, I opened my eyes. A small, gaunt figure bent to chuck more driftwood into the iron stove's firebox. It slammed the door closed and turned to look at me, hands on hips. I blinked, unable to make out the face. 

"Been a long time," the figure said. "But I still know what to do. I rent houses here for fifty year, sixty, all types. You don't have dog, do you? I don't mind dogs, but some of my people don't like them, I try to make everybody happy, but..." The figure turned back to the stove and I sat up slowly. 

"You're not supposed to be here," I said stupidly. The smell of fish made my mouth water 

"Sixty year, seventy, I'm not going to leave." The figure pushed a skillet off the burner, flapped most of the sand from a rickety table, and, using both hands, hoisted the skillet from stove to table. "There. No napkin, too busy to all the time wash napkin. I'm Mrs. Vrach, you know that. Who are you?" 

"Sandra," I said, pulling my sweater over my head. "Sandra Price." 

"Sit," Mrs. Vrach said. "Eat. I clean table soon. You say you have dog?" 

We sat on uneven chairs across the table from each other, while Mrs. Vrach ate and talked, and I ate and stared. The fish came from a pool upstream, she had caught them herself. She'd hidden in the woods when the Evac crews came through, she said proudly. Her children and grandchildren had long since gone south. She showed me snapshots indecipherable with age; she said she had two great-grandchildren but she'd never seen photographs of them. She had reached that androgynous age where the sexes begin to merge: whiskers peppered her chin, and her yellow-white hair was sparse, for all that her eyes and voice were sharp. When the fish had been reduced to bones I licked my fingers clean while Mrs. Vrach hefted the skillet. Her arms shook but she wouldn't let me near it. 

"Part of service," she said. "I treat my people okay."  But she didn't object when I insisted on washing the dishes, although she watched me carefully and swooped down once to flick a sliver of fish from the skillet. 

I spent that day, and the next, following Mrs. Vrach around the deserted ruins of Cannon Beach, trying to determine just how crazy she was and expostulating on the benefits of moving south. She ignored my arguments; she had been here for sixty years, she said firmly, and wasn't going to leave. "Wars," she told me, shaking her head. "Famine. Political craziness. I, Mrs. Vrach, I live through all. Now to leave my home, and for what? A little cold? Humph." I couldn't convince her that in a year or two her home would be under a glacier, and eventually I gave up. 

She knew all the houses, all the stores, and precisely what each one contained. We shopped together through the ruins of the village; Mrs. Vrach carefully counted out shells and beach agates in payment and I carried her purchases, adding them to the rag-tag pile she kept near the stove. That evening we went to check her fish traps, Mrs. Vrach scurrying before me. As we returned along the broken road, she called greetings to empty doorways, held animated conversations with broken windows, reprimanded a nonexistent dog in the collapse of what had been a garden. I was used to the logic of the ice and this old woman confused me. That evening I talked again of the life to the south, the warm weather, the food; she stopped in the midst of a conversation with her favorite grandson and stared at me. 

"No," she said flatly. "Here I have come, after long time, many trials. Here I stay." She gathered her dilapidated quilt about her shoulders and went outside. I lay in my sleeping bag and thought about abduction. 

I woke well past dawn. The room was empty and no fish sizzled on the stove; the iron barely retained the heat of last night's fire. I jammed myself into my clothes and ran onto the beach, still zipping my parka, shouting her name. A figure stood far down the beach near the great triangular rock. I ran toward her, cursing the sand underfoot. 

When I reached her, she had settled again in the lee of a drift-wood pile. I stopped, gasping for air, while she gestured toward the sea. 

"That," she said. "It is what?" I squinted through the fog and made out a darker mass looming off the northern point, beyond the rock with the ruined lighthouse. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Mrs. Vrach was uncharacteristically silent. 

"An iceberg," I said finally. "It's an iceberg." 

"Ah." She put her hands on her knees. "I watch it get bigger. It is far away, yes?" 

"Yes." 

"It come closer?" 

"No. The ice will come down from the mountains."

She nodded. "Then it is time to go." 

But she made no gesture toward leaving, even after I had run back to the house, thrown her possessions and mine into the LandCat, and driven it down the beach to her. I pleaded, argued, cajoled, shouted, and threatened until, exhausted, I sat at her feet. She took my hand and pressed it between her twisted fingers. She started to talk, then: to me, her grandchildren, her husband, her friends. She told folk stories and personal stories, she sang in a language I didn't know. Toward dusk I built a  fire and the talking lessened, then stopped. I looked at her, but she patted my hair and pulled my head against her knee. Eventually I slept. 

I woke a few hours later. The fire was a bed of sullen embers and Mrs. Vrach, relaxed in the arms of the driftwood, faced the ocean with her eyes open and a tiny, wrinkled smile on her lips. I wanted to close her eyes, I wanted to carry her back to her house, I wanted to bury her far from the threat of the ice, but in the end I did none of these things. Instead I took her possessions from the LandCat and arranged them around her: the skillets and pans, the empty fish traps, the ancient photographs, the tattered quilt tucked about her shoulders. I took my thick woolen muffler and wrapped it around her neck, and I got into the LandCat and left her there, staring toward the coming ice. I was crying so hard I almost missed the road. 

On the way back north, I chopped free the plank that said MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER BUILT THIS TOWN. It hung outside my hut, facing the ice, until the day we had to go.
 

home
short fiction
© Marta Randall 1984, 2002
originally published in
ISAAC ASIMOV'S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE, 1984