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The Fate of the Alpha


by Kim Bannerman


The Montreal Review, August, 2010




A miserable wind slapped, pummeled and bit at the doctor as he climbed from the deck of the SS Joan onto the bobbing rowboat. He settled his tall frame in the stern, folded lean legs along the wind break of wooden crates and jute bundles, and when he nodded that yes, he was as comfortable as circumstances allowed, the helmsman gave a sharp bark. The sailors pressed into their oars, the bow creaked.  The first splash of spray glittered from the tips of the paddles. They deepened their stroke and slowly, deliberately, the dory began to slide from underneath the protection of the steam ship, toward the shores of northern Vancouver Island. 

Or, as the sailors called it, New Siberia. The nickname, the doctor reflected, was apt: even now, in the earliest days of March, thick drifts of snow mantled the ground where impenetrable conifers met crooked rocky beaches. This was a forest where wolves hunted and bears roamed, a location ripped from the pages of the Brothers Grimm. It was to be his home for the next ten years.

Another gust of wind tore at his scarf and kicked up a spattering of salt water, dampening his face. Of all Queen Victoria's vast and varied colonies, Vancouver Island was nastiest, and most brutish, and as far from the comforts of London as the devil might devise, but a job offer had enticed him, and a scandal involving a married woman and an impending child had sealed his decision. Henry Wright had no great adventurous spirit, and his exile to the West filled him with resigned despair. He was no coal miner, no lumberjack, no man of the earth. The skin of his hands was soft, save for the callous made by a scalpel.  Bitterness swelled in his throat and he glared again at the wild shore, then looked back at the low decks of the SS Joan, which made this run once a fortnight, and which had delivered him to this wild Hell.

A dangerous place, it was, and poorly suited to an English doctor from a fine, upstanding family.

Last night, over tiny cups of searing vodka, the captain of the Joan, a portly Prussian named Alexi Pushkova, had regaled Wright with the tale of the screw-steamer Alpha. Pushkova was an ugly, salt-encrusted man with stiff features and hard eyes, but his face had softened when he spoke of the S.S. Alpha. In the ecclesiastical light cast by the coal-oil lamp, the galley had become an intimate confessional. Pushkova lowered his voice with awe at the Alpha's fate. Or maybe, thought Wright, it was a reverence for the weather, a respect for the power of the sea. Maybe the fate of the Alpha struck too close to Pushkova's heart: the iron steam ship had been the pinnacle of modern technology, much stronger than Pushkova's beloved wooden Joan. 

Late on a Saturday evening, two months previous and in inclement weather much like this, the Alpha had made its course through Baynes Sound from Victoria, bound for the Colliery wharves south of New Siberia. The flying rain and heavy spray obscured the vision of the pilot, and she was cast up hard on a reef. A young sailor had tossed out a line to secure the damaged vessel, and as the crashing tides pulled back to reveal 50 yards of bare stone, he leapt from the deck to make a desperate dash for shore. In its rhythm, the wave returned, throwing the young man up against the merciless crags. The crew watched with held breath, eyes straining in the dark for any hint of life, expecting none.  But a shout rose, and they saw him, ragged and wretched but alive. Only the Hand of Providence had saved him, guiding his helpless form into a crevice from whence he climbed, miraculously unscathed.

"So seeing this, de first mate," Pushkova had said, a gleam in his watery eyes, "A mister Wilkenson, good man, he got a line out to secure with the first, and he made so that he could climb down the ropes and run for shore, in between the waves, like. But none on that ship, not crew nor passenger, would dare it, not after seeing the waves swallow up the first man, even if he had lived.  So Wilkenson, he starts to threaten, he starts to tell 'em all they are gonna find themselves in the mouth of Hell, if they don't muster up their courage and try to make for shore. Already, the boards are squealing, starting to crack, and the sea water gushing in.

"No, no, no, they are all saying," Pushkova continued, shaking his head with vehemence, "None are going to go.  Captain York, the owner of the vessel, he says the Alpha is as sound and safe as ever she was, and Mr. Barber, a passenger, he decides it better to wait amongst the rigging for morning light, for a lower tide, for a rescue vessel to find them.  De others are starting to agree.  So Wilkenson, bloody bastard, he grabs one of de stowaways and tosses him overboard, and the man, screaming and crying like an albatross, hits the ground with both skinny legs pumping, and he don't pay no heed to the waves, in out in out, and one of those mighty swells comes up and whisks him away."

But even this didn't deter Wilkenson who, as the others screamed out in horror, pushed a second stowaway over the side. This man, spurred on by the fate of his comrade, made a mad sprint for the shore, and reached it safely.  His success was a spur to the rest. The waves tore at the bow, and bits of cargo were floating in the surf -- wooden crates of salt salmon, papers, the gossamer sheen of coal dust on the water.  Every wave shook the steamer like a rat in a terrier's jaws, and daylight, along with any hope of a rescue, was hours away. With Wilkenson shouting threats and brandishing his fists, twenty-seven passengers and crew made the dangerous essay, until they stood at last on the forested shore.

They huddled together, and with each crash came the howl of physical agony in the darkness, of drowning men with crushed limbs fighting against the storm. At one in the morning, a great rending of timber signaled the Alpha's demise, and no more sounds of human suffering were heard over the waves. The survivors plucked their way along the rocks towards the beacon of a lighthouse in the distance, where the light keeper used his meager supplies to make them comfortable until morning arrived.

"Dat Wilkenson," Pushkova had whispered, as if Wilkenson was somewhere on the Joan, "He mean old son of a bitch, but he good man. He do exactly with stowaways what any captain supposed to do, 'cept happened to save one, dis time." And he let out a bellowing laugh, then a belch that smelt of vodka and pickled herring.

The bow of the skiff scraped, wood on pebbles, and the doctor was jerked from his thoughts, thrust back into the present. The front oarsmen jumped out and dragged the boat high, and Wright rearranged his scarf to cover his throat against the chill of New Siberia as he rose from his seat.  He leapt to shore with neither the skill nor the grace of the sailors, and caught his heel on a twist of fractured wood, cast up by the waves.

It was planed wood, not driftwood. For a moment, his eyes lingered on it's smooth surface.  Like the decking of a ship, well oiled, and torn from its place by a feral sea.

Wright tipped it over with his toe.

Ten years, he thought again, and his heart stuttered.  Ten long years of service in this place, where air and water possess the strength to destroy the modern accomplishments of man.  He looked up the beach, to where a small wagon with two chestnut ponies waited to take him to the Colliery Office. Ten years of servitude in this godless land, where the snows last until April and the only egress is by sea, on a rickety contraption called the SS Joan.

Wright kicked the plank aside and set his jaw, and strode towards the wagon with determination. It was complacency, and waiting for rescue, that had destroyed the last people to linger on the Alpha -- those who acted to save themselves had been the only souls to survive. He raised his hand, waved to the driver of the wagon, and with that simple gesture, the doctor embraced his uncertain future. The fate of the Alpha had been a tragedy, but Henry Wright decided he would do all within his power to ensure his survival against whatever may come.

The Alpha's fate would not be his own.



Kim Bannerman's tales have been published in places like Room of One's Own Journal, Parabola Magazine, Lichen Literary Review, Zeugma Magazine, Herizons Magazine and Neo-Opsis Magazine, as well as in Omnidawn Publishing's 'Paraspheres' Anthology. In 2006, her short story "The Mask & The Maze" was nominated for a Hugo Award.  She has worked as a screenwriter for television and film, and has two published novels, "The Tattooed Wolf" (2004) and "The Wolf of Gilsbury Cross" (2006); she is currently working on her third with the support of the Canada Council.


Illustration: Mark Workman. "I like the temper of Mark Workman. It is marked by introversion, is quiet and credible. He does not strain for effect. His work, even when it reaches panoramic length, remains intimate in tone and reticent in feeling. With a minimum of painterly means he conveys a convincing sympathy with his motifs, often little more than a stand of trees or a single one. And he is magical with trees! He traces volutes of branches, contraposed to a winter sky or sharp, sunless light, with rare delicacy. Call it love."

-- Maureen Mullarkey, art critic and artist

About his work Workman says: "Through my paintings I attempt to record a feeling or mood that cannot be described verbally. I make use of metaphor and symbolism to convey my message and like the romantics; I strive to merge the self and nature in landscape paintings. Much of my work involves the relationship of man and the natural organic world he lives in or isolates himself from. It is my hope that the viewer will find solace and mystery in these light filled works of contemplation and meditation." 

Mark Workman's works can be purchased at Bernarducci Meisel Gallery (37 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019).


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