The Living

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 9/4/2009
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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This New York Times bestselling novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard is a mesmerizing evocation of life in the Pacific Northwest during the last decades of the 19th century.


The Living
A Novel

Chapter One

Fall, 1855, the settlement called Whatcom

The sailor put down the helm and Ada Fishburn felt the boat round up towards the forest. She stood in the bow, a supple young woman wearing a brown shawl and a deep-brimmed sunbonnet that circled her face. She carried her infant son, Glee, in her arms.

Without a sound the schooner slipped alongside a sort of dock that met the water from the beach. This dock represented the settlement on Bellingham Bay. Ada Fishburn had been sailing in Puget Sound and along this unbroken forest every day for almost a week. The same forest grew on the islands they passed, too* the trunks rose straight. She had seen enough of this wall of forest to know that even when the sun and all the sky shone full upon it, and the blinding sea glinted up at it, it was always dark.

From behind her on deck Ada heard her older son, Clare, singing a song. Clare was five-a right big boy for five, long in the leg bones like his father-and life suited him very well, and he found his enjoyment. She glanced back and saw her husband, Rooney, moving their four barrels, their five crates, their four kegs, and the rolled feather-bed to the rail. Young Clare climbed up on everything barefoot, as fast as Rooney set it down on the deck. Rooney tied the two cows and gave the ropes to Clare to hold, and the boy sang to them, half-dead as they were. Neither man nor boy glanced up to see where he was getting off, which was a mercy, one of few, for she herself scarcely minded where she was since she lost her boy Charley on the overland road, but she hated to see Rooney down, hearted, when he staked his blessed being on this place, and look at it.

Ada and Rooney hauled their possessions off the dock. The baby, Glee, stayed asleep, moving its lips, and missed the whole thing. The schooner sailed on north and left them there.

It was the rough edge of the world, where the trees came smack down to the stones. The shore looked to Ada as if the corner of the continent

had got tom off right here, sometime near yesterday, and the dark trees kept on growing like nothing happened. The ocean just filled in the tear and settled down. This was Puget Sound, and some straits that Rooney talked about, and there was not a thing on it or anywhere near it that she could see but some black ducks and humpy green islands. Salt water wet Ada's shoes if she stood still. Away out south over the water she made out a sharp tine of snow-covered mountains. From the boat she had seen a few of such mountains poking up out of nowhere, including a big solitary white mountain that they had sailed towards all morning, that the forest now hid; it looked like its sloping base must start up just back there behind the first couple rows of trees. God might have created such a plunging shore as this before He thought of making people, and then when He thought of making people, He mercifully softened up the land in the palms of his hands wherever He expected them to live, which did not include here.

Rooney inspected the tilting dock. He folded his thin body double and studied the pilings and planks from underneath as if a dock were the wonder of the world. When he stood up again, Ada tried to read his expression, but she never could, for his bushy red beard seemed to grow straight down out of his hat, and only the tip of his nose showed. She watched him tear off some green grass blades at the forest edge and feed them to the spotted cows. Then he disappeared partway up a steep trail near the dock, returned, and set off up the beach.

Ada stayed in the silence with their pile of possessions. Her feather-bed was on top, on the barrels, to keep it dry. She poked one of its comers back in the roll so it would not pick up sand from the barrels. Deep inside the bonnet, her bow-shaped mouth was grave. Her dark brows almost met above her nose; her eyes were round and black. She made herself look around; her head moved slowly. The beach was a narrow strip of pebbles, stones, and white old logs laid end to end in neat rows like a necklace where the beach met the forest. Young Clare got right to breaking sticks off beach logs and throwing them in the water. Then he ran along the logs, and every time he stopped, Ada saw his bony head looking all around. It was October. The layer of cloud was high and distant, and the beach logs and the quiet water looked silver.

Ada said to herself, "For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding." The clouds overhead were still. There were no waves. A fish

broke the water's sheen. It was not quite raining, but everything was wet.

A while later she saw a few frail smokes and some cabins under the trees back of the dock; she missed seeing the cabins at first because they were down among the roots of the trees, and she had been searching too high, thinking the trees were smaller. In all those days of sailing past the trees, she had nothing to size them by. Rooney came back beside her and said nothing. While Ada stared at glassy water and the dark islands near and far, here came an Indian man.

The Indian man, in a plug hat, was paddling a dugout canoe in smooth water alongshore. He had another canoe trailing behind him, and no one in it. He was a smooth-bodied, almost naked man, whose face had a delicate, modest expression. The plug hat sat oddly high on his head. He held a paddle low in one hand, and he pushed its top lightly with the other hand; his round, bulging shoulders moved. The silver water closed smoothly behind his path. Little Clare must have caught sight of him, for he came flying down from the logs to the shore.

The man beached the log canoe. Rooney took the few long-legged steps to the water. Clare marched directly into the water to try to help, and the man looked down at the boy and his wet britches with a trace of smile. He brought the other canoe alongshore and, wading, lifted the tan grass mats that decked its red interior. What was in this second canoe was feathers. It was white goose feathers, just loose under the mats. Ada looked out at Rooney; his mouth behind his red beard showed nothing, but she could see that he glanced at her from under his hatbrim.

The man came forward and said his name was Chowitzit. They knew he must be a Lummi Indian, for the schooner man said the local people were Lummis, and "right friendly." He had said, in fact, that the settlement at Whatcom "would have starved to death a dozen times" without the Lummis. Now the Lummi man and Rooney shook hands. He had a wide face and a small nose; he wore an earring made of something pale and hard. He indicated, speaking English in a tender voice and making gestures, that he was selling the feathers. Ada saw that around one of his wrists was a tattooed bracelet of black dots. He said that the price of the whole canoeload of feathers was "two cups of molasses." If they needed less than the whole canoeload, they could just take what they needed. He barely moved his lips when he spoke. His voice tilted.

They had just debarked from a schooner full of molasses; they had two kegs of molasses right there on the beach; everybody in their wagon train

had molasses. They had molasses when they had no water. Molasses was plenty cheap forthat is, but on the other hand, they needed no feathers. Rooney told the fellow no, and thanked him. He added that they could use fresh fish or meat or vegetables if he could get them. He could. Rooney thanked him again, and his high voice cracked. It was all coming home to Rooney here Ada thought, where one powerful effort was endingand another was beginning.

They tied the cows and left their outfit on the beach. Chowitzit led them up the hillside on a short trail through the woods by a creek. From behind Rooney, Ada watched Chowitzit's sure feet on the steep trail. In the past six months she had engaged in a great many acts of commerce with a great many native men of many tribes, and had accustomed herself to the sight of grown men's buttocks. Clare ran on ahead, ran back, and said, "Here's a house," which she could plainly see, a log house across the creek from what she knew was Felix Rush's sawmill.

The log house was low in the forest, and there were stumps and slash smoking all around it in the dirt. The door was open. Chowitzit walked straight inside, and the Fishburns hung back on the bare ground. Ada glimpsed a blue apron, a white woman's face. She heard the woman greet the bare-legged Chowitzit with glad sounds, and they started talking. Then the woman came out, all smiling and showing her long gums, and caught hold of Ada, hauled her inside, and began to weep. She put her arms around her, and Ada gave in to weeping too. The baby woke up and commenced to bawl. Rooney went out to have a look at the mill.

Chowitzit had taken off his hat in the house, and Ada saw that the top of his head was flattened into a wedge, so his forehead sloped back. He and the woman, who was Mrs. Lura Rush, made a stir over puny Glee equally, as if neither had ever encountered such a thing as a baby.

The Living
A Novel
. Copyright © by Annie Dillard. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from The Living: A Novel by Annie Dillard
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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