Verses of the Ballad #11

The following ghostly exchange is excerpted from my 2010 novel Ballad of the Northland


The Whaler was waiting for him outside of the Kaltag foothills, at the foot of a lone peak jutting from the flats like a solitary granite tooth. There was an old cabin with empty sockets for windows and drifts of litter scattered across its floor set just off the bank of a narrow winding creek, and The Whaler now lit a bonfire from pieces of dry alder limbs and chunks of desiccated cottonwood.

The Boy finished the chores of caring for his team bedded down in a willow thicket behind the cabin, and now staggered to seat himself on a stump at the blaze’s perimeter. He sat trembling with his breath coming in labored gasps and his hair hanging down in his face, not even caring that his mentor should see him so weakened.

‘Where is this place?’ he asked in a croaking wheeze.

The Whaler grinned around a lit cigar and his features were partially hidden by its smoke.

‘This is Old Woman,’ he said. ‘We’re about forty miles out from Unalakleet.’ He took a wooden handled rattle with intricate ivory inlays from his sealskin parka pocket, began to slowly shake it. The moon was filled with orange radiance, and its glow now joined that of the bonfire to light The Boy’s face. In the darkened forest, a pack of wolves took up their lonely song.

‘You couldn’t match him,’ The Boy stated. There was no need to specify who he meant. His shaking was becoming almost uncontrollable, and his teeth clattered together like dice in a cup.

‘Nope,’ The Whaler agreed. He shook the rattle faster, and the sound that it produced was not unlike the whirring sizzle of a timber rattler’s tail warning of danger. ‘That obscenity was just too much for me. He kept on going when I pulled in here. I’m bushed, and my dogs are all worn out.’

‘He’s that strong?’

‘He’s stronger. He only let me tag along with him as long as he did because he could tell that he had the power to shake me off whenever he wanted to. Mostly, I think he was just having fun watching me burn up in his backwash.’


‘How about you, kid?’

The Boy spat on the ground at his feet. ‘Not so good, I’m thinking,’ he answered. ‘I’m real tired. I’m just about all used up. I feel like someone could read a newspaper through me.’

‘Yeah,’ said The Whaler. ‘It gets like that sometimes.’ His grin slowly faded and his face grew solemn. The rattle whirred even faster, and over their heads in the surrounding cottonwoods, the limbs sighed and creaked under a freight of dark forms rustling their wings and softly clicking their beaks.


2 Responses to “Verses of the Ballad #11”

  1. Reading that passage makes me realize that I need to start reading Ballad all over agin. By the way…one of the two copies that got checked out in my middle school was returned last Thursday. He said to tell you that it was good. High praise from an eighth grader. I’m still waiting for the other copy checked out to an 8th grade girl.

    • Wow! Sounds like Ballad is doing well out in your neck of the woods–thanks for exposing your kids to it! Please tell your young reader “thanks” for sharing his opinion, and that I’m really glad he liked the book 🙂

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