Summer Hand

by Jacquelyn Kraut

The kid got nothing right at first. I tried not to laugh when he slipped on the icy snow, but the fourth time it happened I couldn’t help myself. Legs flying up and boots in the air and all.

His name was Al and he was the first kid I’d met since Hu died. Twenty-two and shaggy with long, thin limbs. He reminded me of a rabbit when I first saw him, but then when I got to know him he reminded me of a snowy fox. Industrious, curious, and clever. That, and his hair is already going grey. Thin, wintry stripes streaking back from his temples, looking like the snow the wind pulls off the lake.

He’s got things down now. He knocks on our cabin door every morning at seven and eats his breakfast quietly. Barbara and I like to talk in the mornings over our coffee but Al stays quiet, staring out of our window at the expanse of snow and scrub. After breakfast he chops some wood for us and then starts checking the traps. He can do it mostly by himself now, even the one in the river. I can hear him chipping the ice away because everything echoes here.

After he checks the traps, he comes in for lunch. Barbara makes us sandwiches on sourdough and Al talks. Everything he says is of interest to me because, to me, he is from another planet. He grew up in Chicago and went to college and has slept with men and women. He is a communist and an atheist. I find him outlandish.

So I listen to him talk. I listen to his ideas about the world, which emerge from him painfully and carefully. When he talks he hangs his head over his open hands, looking like he’s trying to catch his ideas before they disappear. I feel sorry for him, and I feel grateful that I will be dying soon and do not need to trouble much with the state of the world.

I have never troubled much with it. I’ve troubled with the Land, and the Creatures, and with myself and my family. Barbara and Hu. I trouble with my traps and hanging up our meats to freeze. Every month, I drive the truck the eighty miles to town and then I have to trouble with a few people, and that always feels like an uncomfortable shock to get over with as soon as possible. A five-pound bag of rice, five-pound bag of beans, any produce that’s in to please Barbara, a case or two of beer, and I’m gone. When I pass by the people’s houses on my way out and see their trailers and outhouses and piled-up tires and swing sets and outdoor furniture and big bins on the curb, I cringe at all of the things. Things are mistakes.

I like Al because he doesn’t have much concern for things. He brought one backpack with him here and as far as I can tell it contained clothes and books only. After lunch, we hike the grounds, check the far traps, and skin anything we find to hang. When that’s done he lays in the hammock and reads thick books and writes notes in the margins.

Sometimes we cook dinner over an outdoor fire. We sit there until the stars come out—thousands of them. Barbara unbraids her hair, brushes it, and braids it again. And we talk. Al likes to ask us difficult questions. Sometimes Barbara and I sit quietly, waiting for the other to answer.

He almost feels like one of us now, when we three hang around the fire, full on moose. He sits between us like a kid.

It’s the third week he’s here when Al surprises me and asks about Hu. I don’t say anything for a minute, just look at Barbara, because nothing reminds me of Hu more than her. She was his mother and that lingers on her like a burn.

The Land around us is quiet; I can’t see further than ten feet around the fire, than the trees caught up in the light like exposed bones. Al is hanging over his hands again.

“Hu was our boy,” Barbara begins. When my wife talks she looks at the sky. “He got swept up in the river when he was twelve.”

“The river where we trap?


Al says nothing, just sort of folds in on himself. Barbara and I glance at each other over his head.

“Al?” Barbara says, putting her hand on his knee.

“I am so sorry.” His voice wavers.

Barbara keeps patting him and I stay where I am. His emotions don’t make me uncomfortable, which surprises me. Again, I feel sorry for him.

“Young man,” I say, putting my plate on the log beside me. “It is not your job to carry all the heavy things in the world.”

When I was first getting to know him, back when I thought he was a hare, I thought the grief that came off him was personal. I thought he lost someone, like his dad, but when he became the fox I realized I was wrong. He spoke of precarity, of alienation, of warehouses full of rubber ducks. He spoke of camps, of money and tragedy and farce. Always his open hands beneath his mouth, open to catch his grief rising in his throat like bile. It stunned me, this boy burdened, when I have only been concerned with survival.

“How can I not?” he says.

I now see that that’s why he came here to work for us. Maybe in Alaska, maybe when he’s checking traps and fighting the cold and sleeping under a down blanket with his breath fogging the shed window will he just feel the aches of his body and nothing more. But even here grief pulls us into rivers and the world reaches us in cold echoes.

Jacquelyn Kraut is a writer and a teacher. She lives in Illinois.
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