An excerpt from the novel Homestead
by Melinda Moustakis
Note: This edited excerpt from Chapter 1, “Pioneer Peak, June 1956” is taken from the novel Homestead, with permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. Copyright ©2023 by Melinda Moustakis.
God made the trees and men make the kindling, they say. One hundred and fifty acres of white spruce and paper birch, alder, aspen, cottonwood, and willow—spears of evergreen pointed at the sky, and the pale and peeling bark, and the leaves of every branch—all for the taking if the acres are proved.
Fell the trees and clear twenty acres of land to seed a crop, raise a cabin with nails and timber, and weather the seasons. This is the way to earn and own the deed.
Lawrence stands where the cabin will stand, the marsh and muskeg easing miles toward the marine inlet of Knik Arm, and beyond, the sloped rock of the Chugach Mountains, and the soaring crest of Pioneer Peak cragged in snow, the highest point on the horizon. Here, in this place, the low rising to meet the bluff on the northern ridgeline, and to the south, the thick-lain woods that lead to the lake that has water for hauling. On these acres in Point MacKenzie, in the territory of Alaska, is where he will homestead.
He drove for hours and the gravel road turned to mud and then there was not an access road that he knew, or any sense of a living. When there was a path no farther, he headed into the thick trees with a pistol and a compass, his rucksack filled with painted wooden stakes to mark the edges of his property. He unrolled the map and could not find the plot number or the terrain, but he would not turn back now. He walked through the woods, the sweat of the search on his neck as the time wore, and the mosquitoes swarmed, and when he slapped the sting, the blood ran down, and he had to look away. Washed out the faint taste of metal in his mouth with water from his canteen, swished and spat, quickly dabbed his arm with a handkerchief. He went farther in, making his own trail, the needle on the compass his only direction. He crossed bear tracks dry in the dirt, the claws short of the length of his boot, bigger than a black bear’s. He knew to heed the signs of grizzlies, and he checked the bullets in the pistol, made his steps light. The ground edged to swamp with shallows, dark earth and muck, and he pressed on to find the lake. In the brush a cow moose grazed with twin calves flanked at her side, their downy heads poking through the low shrubs, and though he was quiet, the cow herded the yearlings back into the thicket. At a pass he came to a meadow, and in the open view of the grass, far in the climbing distance, a large white sphere, masted and man-made, a question. He drank more water from the canteen, leaned against a birch tree. Could belong to him, for all he knew, this birch, the dewed ferns bright in the blind of the woods, the sodden ground under his boots, the bloodthirsty mosquitoes.
Then a shadow appeared, and circled him, and a helicopter landed soft in the clearing, silver with a red nose and tail, a white star circled in blue painted on the side, air force. The engine tuned and the blades slowed, and he waited. The pilot opened a door and waved him over, and with caution, he approached. There were two men in the front.
“Where you going?” asked the pilot. “You don’t seem like you know.” Lawrence showed him the title and the torn and useless map and did not mention his service.
“One of those tenderfoots,” said the other pilot. He knew of a trail leading off the landing field at the outpost and could show him. “Looks like you could take that and drive through the marsh to your land. Lucky I spotted you,” he said.
And so Lawrence was lifted up and flown into the sky, as he had been in the war, above the ridgelines and the jagged face of Pioneer, above the wide green of the trees, and he was lost, straining and searching, the stock of his life held up to clouds and air, his feet afloat, a pressure at his temples, his arms heavy and empty, and suddenly a bullet of light in the acreage below, the sharp gleam of a lake, his lake. There, his land, his homestead, where his children will call the years. Where he will cut the timber and till the ground and build a cabin of his own measure. He will claim what he is owed. And by the work of his hands this will all be his.
Author Melinda Moustakis.