Glimpse: Byron @ Upernavik


Byron is wedged into an Inuit kayak being blown through a fierce storm. He cannot see what is ahead of him, or what is below, but the air is drenched with the smell of the sea. He has a paddle but can’t navigate with it. The kayak is at the mercy of the storm and the ride becomes wilder, more erratic, sending him sharply higher then crashing down, twisting and jerking from side to side. He drops the paddle, clutches the sides of the small craft.

Suddenly, a cliff emerges from the storm. It is certain the kayak will crash into it. Byron begins to sing.

When I get to the bottom, I go back to the top of the slide
And I stop, and I turn, and I go for a ride
And I get to the bottom, and I see you again!

At the last moment, the kayak veers away, screaming along parallel to the cliff face. It dips momentarily toward the ocean below then rockets up dangerously close to the shoals.

Well, do you, don’t you want me to make you?
I’m coming down fast, but don’t let me break you
Tell me, tell me, tell me your answer!

The kayak lands suddenly on a snow-covered landscape beside the Old Church in Upernavik. The church is brightly lit inside, glowing under a cloudless night several degrees above the polar circle. Byron extracts himself from the kayak, approaches a window on the side of the church.

Inside, Buck and Salamina stand before the altar of the church. They are dressed in traditional Greenlandic celebratory attire: he has a white anorak and black dress pants. She wears white sealskin boots that reach over her knees, colorful leggings, a purple blouse and vibrant yoke of beads. They speak to one another, though Byron can’t hear them. He pounds on the window frame to no avail.

Byron goes around to the entrance, opens the door.


Byron enters the church. A large green worm, three feet in diameter, 20-feet long lies on the altar, encircling Buck and Salamina. It is at rest. The couple stop speaking to one another, turn to face Byron, not startled by his appearance.

What are you doing?

Just a little ritual, boy.

Salamina (in English)
We love each other.

You can’t do this. You’re married to my mother.

She’s not here, son.

You don’t just leave your family behind.

No? What are you doing?

What happens when you go home?

It’ll sort itself out.

Buck and Salamina turn to face each other again, their four hands joined. They exchange solemn vows in Greenlandic, speaking low and quietly, the way Greenlanders do.

You can’t do this.

As Byron approaches the couple, Buck faces him, still holding hands with Salamina.

Are you sure you can do this?

The green worm rolls its head to the side, allowing Byron to step onto the altar. Suddenly, he is alone with Salamina, there is no sign of Buck. She locks arms with him and the worm begins to writhe, its innards grumbling gruesomely.

We have to get out of here.

The worm begins to coil closer to them. Salamina hands Byron an Inuit harpoon and hunting knife. He plunges the harpoon into the worm. It reacts violently, shrieking, guts and blood pouring out on the floor, tightening itself around their legs. Byron begins to hack furiously at it with the knife, hot blood spraying in his face. The noise becomes unbearable, drowning out Salamina’s cries, the walls of the church begin to shake from the violence within.

Byron continues slashing at the beast, which offers a final howl and then begins to die. He drops the knife, takes Salamina by the hand, and leads her off the altar and toward the entrance to the church. Windows are blown in by a fierce storm. The door is ripped from its hinges, sucked into the maelstrom outside as the two of them step into oblivion.


Salamina and Byron are having breakfast. Through the window, clear skies over frozen Baffin Bay. Salamina sips her coffee thoughtfully, rests it on the table.

Tanks you.

Thank you.

Angakok …

Byron interrupts.

You are angakok, the shaman. Not me.

Salamina shakes her head. She looks away, embarrassed, and gushes forth in Greenlandic, then in Danish, quivering with frustration at not being able to tell him what she wants to say. Byron listens attentively.

I wish I understood. I wish I could tell you that I saw you and Buck together happy last night,
that I tried to help you. That I woke up this morning suddenly afraid that I could have
killed someone in a blackout rage. I … I wish I could tell you that.

Byron gets an idea, digs into his backpack and retrieves a small notepad and pen. He writes a message to Salamina, tears the page from the notepad and hands it to her.

Someday, ask someone to translate this to Greenlandic.

Salamina looks at the note, nods her head, and gestures for the pen and pad. She writes for a few minutes, tears the page from the notepad and slides it across the table to Byron.

Make English.

Byron looks at the incomprehensible language in a flowing hand.

I’ll try.


Research notes: Aron of Kankeg

I met Aron of Kangek several years ago at the art museum in Ilulissat, Greenland. Born in 1822, he was a subsistence hunter off the west coast of Greenland, near Nuuk. In 1858 he was stricken by tuberculosis and could no longer go out in his kayak to hunt. In a cramped, primitive house on the island of Kangek, Aron took up art. Watercolor, woodcuts, drawings. He was aided in his work by Hinrich Rink, the Danish administrator for Greenland.

Aron had no training. In the words of polar explorer Eigil Knuth, he was the first Greenland Inuit to figure out “how to conjure a balanced picture out of a plane surface.” When you’re the first Greenland Inuit to do something, Knuth notes, it’s as good as being the first human to do it.

Tuberculosis killed Aron in 1869. He left behind about 345 known works, including 250 watercolors, many of them depicting scenes from pre-literate Greenland-Inuit legends. The compositions were given to Rink, who was compiling an oral history of the native people in a series of bound books. Rink’s widow gave them to a Danish museum, where they remained for a long time. The Ilulissat exhibition in 2018 was homecoming, their first showing in Greenland.

In the museum, I was drawn to an image of a native hunter in a kayak floating in air near a cliff. [The photo posted here features a reflection from my camera flash and a shadow cast by either my dense head or the camera itself.]

Later, I found myself writing a novella-that-became-a-screenplay that takes place in Ilulissat. The floating-kayaker image seemed to me to fit with an ancient Greenlander tale about an old bachelor who didn’t like singing. I mashed the two together and came up with a dream sequence for my project.

Just recently, I learned that the floating kayaker was an historical figure named Tusilartoq. According to Aron’s story, he was out hunting in his kayak when he was lifted from the sea by two seagulls. The gulls suddenly acquire  white dresses and the wings of angels. Tusilartoq rubs his eyes to make sure he’s seeing what he’s seeing, but there is seal blood on his hands. It ends his vision and he descends to sea.

This has been interpreted as a symbolic representation of the psychological tension in the transition from an indigenous belief system to Christianity, which the Danes exported to Greenland. Church records show Tusilartoq was baptized in 1756, though he might not have actually converted.

Tusilartoq had issues. He brutally maimed his wife in a gruesome manner because she couldn’t make their infant son stop crying. This led her to suicide, which led to a blood feud and a killing spree by Tusilartoq. Not exactly the likable chap in the story of The Old Bachelor.

Odd coincidence: Tusilartoq means deaf person in Greenlandic.


Book review: The Lincoln Highway

Amor Towles

Four young men face numerous setbacks and detours on a cross-country road trip.

This is a lively, well-crafted tale that keeps the reader engaged with a twisty, fast-moving story line. The four principal characters, all young white men in the early 1950s, are clearly drawn and illuminated. Relevant backstory is provided as the narrative unfolds. It feels epic (576 pages), rambunctious, adventurous, sometimes poignant.

It is currently ranked #1 on my list of novels read in 2022.

The Lincoln Highway is a smooth ride. The four principal characters are rarely all together in the same scene. The gears shift often – but fluidly. That’s a tribute to the strong characterization: you figure out who these people are early on and recognize them quickly despite getting bounced along.

The story parts are well-fitted, with enough unexpected twists to keep you on your toes. Two of the protagonists in particular are complex characters who wrestle with good and less-good instincts. The other two are naïve and charming in their own ways.

It’s hard to say their personalities evolve or are changed by the story, although their situations are significantly different at the end of the story. The various endings are sometimes unexpected but they fit with the groundwork laid by the author.

The prose is sophisticated, amusing, earnest and insightful. I enjoyed it. But it sounds more like an erudite, mature novelist than any of the young men driving the story, one of whom is about 10.

The novel is realistic. As with most novels, coincidence happens. But it’s credible coincidence. One road bump for me was a 1,300-mile journey by a single motorist in about 18 hours. In an old pickup truck in 1954, when the Interstate system was a twinkle in Eisenhower’s eye and the eponymous Lincoln Highway was a collection of routes that ran through towns and cities, rather than steering around them.

Truth be told, I put this on my reading list because it was a best seller about a road trip on the Lincoln Highway. My as-yet-unsold road trip story, Claudine vs. the Ants, is centered on the stretch of U.S. 50 that runs across the Great Basin from Lake Tahoe to the Nevada-Utah border. It’s called the Loneliest Road in America because of the dearth of traffic, but it’s also considered part of the Lincoln Highway as that’s currently defined. At least by some.

The Lincoln Highway is strongly recommended, especially for the reader leans nostalgic for the 1950s and young guys finding themselves on the road.


#2 Thing to do in Hyattsville


Once upon a time, Prince George established a public library on the road to Adelphi. As it was 1964, the prince considered naming it for John F. Kennedy. Instead, it was called the Hyattsville Branch of the Prince

George’s Memorial Library and become famous for its flying-saucer canopy at the main entrance.

According to the Maryland Historical Trust, the saucer was meant the draw the attention of the passing motorist and was not intended to be “programmatic.” Examples of programmatic flourishes on commercial buildings include large buckets of chicken, doughnuts, cowboys and so forth. The observer can intuit from those signs that chicken, doughnuts and western boots are available in those establishments.

The library did not offer artifacts from interstellar travel. However, experts characterize the saucer is “a graceful and satisfying element” that echoes an important architectural motif of the early 1960s, as seen in the works of Eero Saarinen, a famous architect who had nothing to do with the library.

However, our saucer landed at a time when people were driving around in some space-age cars.

In recent years, Prince George has undertaken a massive rebuild of the library that is nearing completion. The flying saucer was not abandoned, but it had to be moved. It didn’t fit with the chic look of the rebuild.

Our monument to the space age is now located at the back of the library, along Toledo Ave, next to a garage entrance that has no recognizable motif. While no longer in the spotlight, the saucer now commands attention a the center of a ring of 11 objects meant to signify planets in varying patterns and colors. There is also a cosmic swirl of color on the ground beneath the dome.

In addition to being jazzed up, it is no longer squeezed into the juncture of two parts of the building.

Imagine yourself in a Rodin-like pose upon the red planet. You muse that our flying saucer may be literal, the sign of a vehicle of knowledge. Passing motorists may see it as a form of broader transport than their primitive automobile. The future beckons through the saucer’s dome as we wander among the stacks.

“We set sail on this new sea because there is knowledge to be gained,” President Kennedy said, thinking of the moon.

The first public libraries in the county of Prince George were bookmobiles.


Jesse meets an angel

from Claudine vs the Ants

Miles later, Jesse strayed off the road surface into the shadscale. He felt dehydrated, a faintness in his head, something wrong and metallic in his blood, his heart distant. He knew they had to save their water. He distracted himself by stepping with care, trying not to tread on the few tiny plants struggling to survive in the high desert. That man who wanted to take them in his car reminded him of the elders who made him ashamed because they are going to heaven and he isn’t.

Jesse, said a voice behind him that he didn’t recognize. He paused and looked around. Jenna walked on, passing him, her head bent down, the long dress swirling around her legs striding mechanically forward. He looked around himself, and the voice said, You won’t see me if you keep looking.

He resumed his march, turned his face forward and bowed his head. That was a dangerous thing you did running away from home with Jenna. It was a kind, but stern voice. Jesse was sure it was an angel.

“I know.” He whispered so Jenna would not hear. His gait slowed and he strayed a little deeper into the brush.

And it wasn’t such a great idea to hit that man with a rock.

“I know.” That had been bothering him.

He wasn’t going to heaven anyway.

“What about me?” Dry tongue tried to lick dry lips. “Will I go to heaven?”

Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you, the angel said, with some warmth and humor.

“What did you come here to tell me?” He had never before talked to an angel and didn’t want to offend her, but he felt entitled to know what she wanted.

You asked me to come.

That made him think, as hard as he had ever thought in his life. He was tempted to call out to Jenna and ask her what to say. But he realized that, at this point, it was between him and this angel. He was on his own.

“How can I protect her?” He kept his focus on the ground, weaving roughly parallel to the road through the shadscale.

Throw yourself in front of danger, like a soldier.

“Was Jesus a soldier?”

He threw himself in front of danger for others. You could do worse.

Suddenly, Jesse sprinted ahead as fast as his legs would carry him. He galloped past Jenna, startling her. In his head, images of Jesus in full-body armor, his Mighty Sword thrashing evil, defending the defenseless, the damned, the refugees and the afflicted. He became Jesse Almighty, with the power to tame wildness, touched by an angel to charge into the realm of bilious onrushing danger, to defend his sister, trying to find a better life for the two of them.

“Where are you going?” Jenna yelled as her brother loped away through the brush, his arm raised as if carrying an invisible lance.

“I’m going to protect you,” he cried. He wanted to get away from the angel but could feel her still there, tethered to his right shoulder like a kite on an infinitesimal string of gossamer, the air pouring through her, gently slowing Jesse’s mad dash across the desert.

“Wait,” Jenna said and began to run through the desert brush to catch up with him.

Why are you running like this? the angel asked. This is proof that deities don’t know everything.

“I’ll take care of Jenna, just don’t ask me to do any more,” he shouted. Jesse had been to church plenty enough and God was never far away in the life he had run away from. But it wasn’t any God that he had found on his own, it was one drilled into him by stern people who themselves did not seem to be happy in their faith. He remembered a day when he was a young boy chasing Jenna around in the back yard, watching her blond hair bouncing in the sunlight, her joy lifting into the sky and a cheery breeze swirling around them. He sensed then that it was the last time he would feel that way, and that he had never seen anyone else who was nearly that happy. Jesse figured that he just wasn’t clever enough to understand why that feeling had to be so precious and fleeting.

What more would I ask of you? the angel asked, snapping him back to the moment.

“You could ask me to take her back,” he yelled. “You could ask me to explain everything that I feel about her. You could ask me to follow God’s way.” In his heart, he thought, you could ask me to be like Father, but this was a prospect Jesse didn’t want to address. Especially to an angel who wouldn’t stop following him and leave him alone.

Then Jesse tripped over a rock, thumping onto the hard, grainy desert pavement, face-planted in rabbit-bush. The angel, apparently, kept going because he could no longer feel her presence. There was dirt in his mouth, which he spat out as he rose on his hands and knees. And then, a sudden relief lifted in him. He rolled over on his back. The sky was starting to get that dusky tinge of indigo and orange.

An ant crawled along his wrist. He was in their world. And had there been any ants nearby that knew what to do with fallen boys who were fleeing angels, they would have been the luckiest ants ever. Jesse felt the earth on his back, shutting off any prospect of going back, aiming him onward, incrementally, minute-by-minute, westward to a West that never gets any closer.

A Good Marriage

Kimberly McCreight

A complex murder mystery grips upper middle-class parents relishing freedom while their children are away at summer camp.

The unraveling of the crime behind this story is skillfully managed through two primary channels. A first-person narrative from the attorney drawn into the mess starts just after the crime, and a third-person narrative from the victim’s POV leads up to the crime. In addition, McCreight weaves in bits from grand-jury transcripts and a cybersecurity consultant’s progress updates.

The story cruises along in second gear for quite a while, revealing key pieces of the victim’s past, events prior to the crime and the attorney’s evolving understanding. There are dead ends. The resolution comes into focus in the final chapters, when we get an account of the murder itself. A lot of things fall into place, which is customary for murder stories.

The conclusion is well-fitted to the story. The legal-criminal aspects of the story are 100% credible, as is the depiction of this particular slice of modern Americana. If you have any interest in upscale Brooklyn, you’ll likely enjoy this book.

There is a homogeneity to this: all White (I think), mostly middle-aged, parents of kids attending a tony private school in the Parkslope neighborhood of Brooklyn. There’s a liberal sprinkling of titillation: a sex party (sorry, voyeurs, no details), domestic abuse, stalkers, really bad husbands, an out-of-control alcoholic.

And McCreight does a good job giving depth to her characters, especially the first-person attorney. And there’s a compelling twist to the victim’s story. The prose is straightforward, pitching the reader along. If you have time on your hands, you can finish this 390-page book in a long weekend.

#1 Thing to do in Hyattsville


Steve used to work for a local river. As part of his job, he posed for before-and-after pictures regarding the removal of invasive plants. A billboard was installed near a trailhead in what is now known as Driscoll Park. Steve votes in favor of removing invasive plants.

Some time ago, Steve and his son David went canoe camping with other dads and sons on a river that he didn’t work for. The group stopped to explore a cave, found some bats, and returned to their canoes. Except Steve. We waited some time before Steve’s head and shoulders emerged from a small opening in the rock face well above the entrance to the cave. For this and other adventurous behavior, he was christened Mayor of West Virginia.

Steve hasn’t worked for the river for quite a while; he now works for trees. But his legacy lives on in this aging billboard, grinning firm in his conviction into the ravages of wind and rain and sun. Even snow.