An Alaskan childhood: winter is nostalgia, and never happened

I remember the existence of Santa Claus, it seemed real and undeniable.


Illustration: Laura Carlin

The breath of the mountain closer in winter, our house at the end of the road, at the edge of rainforest gone silent in snow. Ketchikan, Alaska in 1969 or 1970, when I was three or four, first memories. A forest with timber wolves but I was free to wander, children not so protected then.

What we’re looking for is a different mind, in which this mountain does not end and the wolves are always near, and the snow itself could be the mind.

Some of the moments were not alone. Skiing the cleared hillside behind the neighbour’s house on skis half the length of my arm now. Skiing through their strawberry patch, getting in trouble. The rhubarb, also, somehow a source of trouble. A world in which we can do wrong without even knowing, the weight of adults, their terrible power and wonder, like gods.

The real existence of Santa. I remember him. Taking a bath on Christmas Eve and hearing a knock at our front door. Hearing ho, ho, ho and knowing immediately. No memory of drying off, and was I naked when I ran to Santa? In our living room, in his red suit and white beard, snow on his boots, with a burlap sack of presents over his shoulder, real and undeniable, the story world seamless with our own. A neighbour who played the part, and does anyone still do this?

Icicles, also. In long wicked spikes all along our roof, clear daggers jointed and the snow high enough I could reach easily, pluck them free and lick or impale the air. A Super 8 home movie, bundled in my snowsuit, breaking off an icicle and then parading with it on the icy path and falling hard. What’s odd is that my mother keeps moving the camera in closer as I’m crying and waving her away. And this is how I see all of my first memories, as if I’m standing a few feet away and filming, holding the camera close. I can’t remember from inside except in brief dark flashes of direct apprehension that have no room for self. Anything considered me has to be seen from the outside. Anything closer is only the world. Fungal growths on trees, seasons flipping, waxy red flowers impossible and bright and it’s no longer winter and there are only fragments. What we’ve become is erasure after erasure.

My father’s boat gliding in slowly out of the white, the sky and water all the same, all white and still, and there are wolves tied across the bow, gray fur and blood staining the snow, their large heads and tongues and long yellowed legs bound together, tied to slim railings of stainless steel. Trapped and shot and soon to be skinned. My father returning from some fairy-tale errand. His dark green slickers, the same rain gear everyone wore, every day, 230 inches of rain and snow every year, the sky something close and personal and felt, fog constantly on the water and anything might emerge from it.

In winter we still went out on the ocean and to other islands, in storms and cold and whatever fell from the sky. Flakes disappearing in waves, and a thousand forms those waves could take. Pewter bands, smooth leftovers from another place, or dark brown-green in rare sun, or black or cobalt or blown in whitecaps and foam. Alaskan waters almost without season, always cold, and I can’t remember what rose from them when. In winter, I think it was king crab. Red spiky armour, white underneath. Underside of their bodies like fingers interlocked, and it looked as if they might open and other creatures emerge. Those tiny eyes on stalks with nothing behind them. And that mouth, just more legs. I remember sitting on the aft deck, cold and wet as the boat slammed through waves, watching the crabs in their netting, still clinging to the bits of fish we’d used as bait.

When we returned, my hands and feet always so cold. My mother running the tap in the sink, cold water first, which felt hot and burned, and gradually warmer water, the feeling of flesh splintering and then finally gaining substance again.

I fell in once, full immersion, off the back of the boat into the sea, vacuum of breath and thought. I still remember the moment, the panic and impossibility, and being hauled up by my life jacket. Every memory like this, a brief moment born from nowhere and with an end and no moment following. The winter crab like this too. White meat edged in red. Meat made of small strands all radiating from the centre, as if the crab were born in a burst of light, small sudden explosions on the ocean floor, unnoticed.

That’s what I see now, darkness and cold at depth and each crab winking into existence. They seem as alien as that, not born of this world. And my childhood the same, and Alaska. Winter is nostalgia, and never happened. Memory is only fishing, waiting to feel the tug of someone else we might have been.

David Vann’s latest novel is “Goat Mountain” (William Heinemann, £16.99)

This article appears in the 19 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Triple Issue