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Alaskan's deep, dark winters can be unsettling for a newcomer like Dolan--especially when he must atone for past lives.

Revenge of the Kosher Voles

by Joe Murphy





6080 words



Revenge of the Kosher Voles


Joe Murphy








      "I'm saved!"  Dolan sags onto a stool, stuffing heavy gloves in his pockets; a thick knitted cap follows.  Finally, he attempts to escape the all-embracing grip of his parka. "Beer please."

      The parka slips down behind Dolan and leans against the stool like a dead, midget-sized drunk.  Dolan wipes his specs, slips them on, and peers into the mirror behind the bar.  A typical Alaskan bush establishment, The Rosie Creek Saloon--bear and moose skins quilt the walls, moose antlers, jukebox.

        Dolan brushes his wiry brown hair almost into place.  He peers at the bartender and the locals near the far end.

      The locals, a middle-aged blond with a lopsided face, and a bearded oldster who reminds Dolan of the abolitionist John Brown on a bad hair day, peer back.  Everyone nods simultaneously at each other's reflections.

      "So."  The bartender, Leon, barely twenty-one with a shaved head and nose ring, plunks a draft beer in front of Dolan.  "How you liking cabin life?  Staying warm up there?"  The kid always says this.  Dolan is counting on it.

        Dead winter during the long darkness and Dolan's first year in the little hamlet thirty miles from Fairbanks.  Weather makes excellent bar talk.

        "I'll get by," Dolan says, a little too eagerly. "But I've got this problem."

        "Oh?" Leon leans on the bar.  The locals turn towards him.

        "Have some visitors." Dolan holds his hand up, thumb and forefinger spread about three inches. "Don't know what they are, little furry guys.  Bout this big, I guess."

        "Bout this big?"  Leon holds up his own thumb and forefinger the width of a beer glass. Rather unnecessarily, Dolan thinks, but neither is pressed for time.

        "Yeah."  Dolan nods and sips his beer.

        "Kinda brown?"


        Leon disappears behind the bar, pops up with a large Folgers can with a taped paper label 'Treats'.  He tilts the can Dolan's way. "Like this?"

        Dolan looks into the can.  A rodent, kinda brown, chubby, sort of like a hamster with a stubby tail looks back through beady black eyes.  Its nose twitches.

        "Yeah, like that," Dolan agrees.

        "You got voles," Leon says and returns the can behind the bar. He grins at the locals and announces, "Dolan's got voles in his cabin."

        "Imagine that."  Miranda, the woman with the lopsided face, shrugs.

        "Not surprised." Bad Hair John Brown, aka Miller, nods.

        "So, keeping warm up there?" Leon asks.

        "Coldest winter in ten years," Miller says, lifting his glass to his lips.

        "Yeah," Miranda agrees, sipping her beer.  "Damn cold."

        Dolan's shoulders sag. He'd hoped for a little more conversational excitement and hides a frown behind his beer.

        "Now what about these things?"  He pushes the empty glass forward.

        Leon gets Dolan another beer.  "What things?"

        "The voles," Dolan replies.  Jeez, does he have to spell everything out for these people? "What about these voles?"

        "You got 'em."  Leon grins, nose ring glittering in the light. "You got voles in your cabin." His head cocks toward the others. "Just like everybody."

        "Yeah but what do I do?"

        "About what?"  Leon offers such a blank look that Dolan begins to wonder if they're messing with him.  He glances down the bar.  Miller and Miranda talk quietly among themselves.

        "About the voles, man!"  Dolan glares at him.  "What do I do about the goddamn voles?"

        "You don't have to shout." Leon's eyebrows quiver, voice approaching the oh-poor-me range.

        "Sorry," Dolan says quickly.  It's never wise to hurt your local bartender's feelings.

        "Why do anything about them?"  Miller spits something black and beard-staining into a paper cup.  "They're cute little critters, interesting to watch.  And clean too.  I give 'em the run of my cabin.  They even keep kosher with me."

        "Kosher?"  Dolan pulls back and stares at him.

        "Jewish dietary laws," Leon says helpfully.

        "Started back about 100 BC," Miranda adds.

        Dolan stiffens but tries not to show it.  Religion, any religion is dangerous bar talk.  He's learned this the hard way.  Miller doesn't look Jewish, or come to think of it, even sane.

        "So you don't do anything?"

        "I follow the rules," Miller grins.  "For instance, I don't mix meat and dairy products."

        "I meant the voles." Dolan's fists clench on the bar.

        "They don't mix meat and dairy either," Miranda laughs.  Leon smirks and makes a show of wiping the counter.

        "You just let them...the voles, run loose in your cabins?" Dolan presses on.  "That's all you do?"

        Leon nods.  Miller nods. Miranda shrugs and reaches for her beer.

        "Oh." Dolan lets it drop. No sense getting pissed.  He means to get along with his new neighbors.  Time to go with the flow.

        Five beers later, he struggles into his parka.  Out come the thick wool hat and heavy gloves.  He's found some of what he came for.  If not a solution for voles, at least a little companionship--and a good buzz.


        Home.  The gloves come off so Dolan can light the propane lantern.  The cabin is so cold the metal lantern burns his fingers.  The water jug on the kitchen counter has split; tiny glaciers trickle down a crack in its side.

        Dolan hangs the lantern on the ceiling hook.  Black beady eyes peer at him, gleaming in the shadows.  Accusing little eyes, perhaps wondering how he could be so heartless and let it get so cold.

        Dolan shivers as he loads the woodstove.  Paper, twigs, finally a couple of good dry birch logs, split by his very own hands with his very own maul, this very morning.

        Beady vole eyes wink out, two by two as the fire gets going.

        "Can't we just get along?" Dolan grins at the last pair that watches from deep shadows beneath his unmade bunk.

        He turns on the radio. 

        "-sleep now in the fire!"  Rage Against the Machine rattles through the cabin from Battle of Los Angeles.  He frowns, flips through the static and mellows out with some Cowboy Junkies.  Screw the oppressed.

        Off goes the parka and hat.  He'll sleep in long underwear, sweat pants, and a sweater.  His breath still steams as he pours a glass of schnapps.

        Feeling generous, he tips a half shot into a jar lid and leaves it on the floor beside the woodstove.

        "Have yourselves a nightcap," he says aloud, and then chuckles.  "It's...on the cabin."

        Bedtime.  He turns off the radio, relishing the quiet.  The propane lantern hisses.  He takes a long steaming whiz in the honey bucket, too damn cold to brave the outhouse.  He turns off the lantern.

        In the darkness, the woodstove rumbles gently.  Dolan climbs into bed.  His eyes close.

        On the edge of sleep, the schnapps warm inside him, he mumbles to the voles, "G'night."

        A heartbeat later, a small furry body runs across him.  Dolan blinks, looks down at a moonlit square on the brown army blanket.  Two glittering black eyes blink back.

        "Not on the bed, okay?" He shifts and turns over.

        Scurry, scurry, scurry, another little body scampers over his shoulder.  Dolan tries to ignore it.  Two more dash across his ankles.

        Dolan gets up.  He adds wood to the stove; maybe the warmth will attract the critters so he can get some rest.  Back in bed, not ten minutes pass before little vole feet race over him again.

        "Shit," Dolan mutters, turning over, drawing the blankets tighter. 

        It's like that all night.  Sometime in the wee hours, he hears the crunch of cardboard, then the crackle of pilot bread.  They've gotten into a box he left on the counter.  Dolan's too exhausted to care.


        Morning?  Afternoon?  Dolan can't decide.  His wind-up clock quit during the night.  It's still dark.  Wire rim glasses burn his cheeks, sticking to the flesh and leaving red marks when he finally fumbles them off in the Rosie Creek Saloon.

        Alone in the bar, Miranda sits at a table.  She glances up from a pyramid formation of cards, peers nearsightedly at Dolan.

        "Hey," Dolan lifts a frozen hand, and then pulls off his gloves and hat.  "Where's your buddy Miller?"

        "Haven't seen him today."  Miranda leans back in her chair, puts her feet up on another.  "What can I do for you?"

        "Well, I was hoping for a beer."

        "Hope.  Where would we be without it?  No planes would grace the skies, no ships would sail the foamy seas."  Miranda clasps her hands behind her head, further mussing an unruly blonde mass, not quite dreadlocks but too tangled to be called combed.  "All is lost if one abandons hope."

        "Uh, about that beer?"

        "I'm busy watching the bar." A lopsided smile splits Miranda's face. "Leon's in Fairbanks at some meeting.   Help yourself.  Hey, bring me one too, will you?"

        Dolan goes behind the bar, finds some clean glasses, and draws two beers.  Underneath the counter, he notices the Treats can.  Three small furry voles gaze up at him as if he were God.

        Dolan scowls back, and then rubs his eyes.  Tired, the three-mile walk from his cabin hadn't woke him up completely.

        As Dolan approaches, Miranda lifts her feet from the chair and gives it a shove with her heel. "How you liking cabin life?"

        "That's just what Leon says."  Dolan sets down the beers and sags into the chair.

        "That's my boy." Miranda reaches for her glass.  "Taught him everything I know."  She has a sip and studies him. "So, staying warm up there?"

        "Warm as possible."  Dolan shrugs.  "Although I've slept better.  Last night, the voles used me for a racetrack."

        "Know how that is."  Miranda leans forward in her chair, hits her beer, and then wipes her mouth on the sleeve of a torn blue sweater.  "Same thing happened to me."

        "Do they often do that?"

        "Miller says so.  And he's the high priest of cabin life."  Miranda frowns at her beer, mouth pulled to one side. 

        Her face isn't really lopsided, Dolan realizes.  Not the bone structure at least, her chin is the perfect tip of a heart.  No, it's her expression.  Has she had a mild stroke?  A birth defect?

        "They're driving me nuts."  Dolan reaches for his beer and catches a whiff of her--an acrid mix of body odor, wood smoke, and alcohol.  His nose wrinkles but he covers it with his beer glass.

        "Ever had your fortune told?"  Miranda studies a display of cards.  Some sort of tarot deck, Dolan realizes.

        "Well no."

        "Tell you what.  Get us a couple more beers and I'll tell yours."  Miranda thumps him in the chest with a nail-chewed forefinger.  She's got a pretty good buzz going, Dolan thinks enviously.  Does she have to pay for her beer?

        "All right."  Dolan stands, drains his glass, and picks up hers.  He retrieves two more beers, ignoring the Treats can and the frantic scratching of claws on metal.

        "Better check the stove too."  Miranda says when he returns.

        "Yeah, okay."  Dolan goes over, throws a couple logs into the woodstove, and comes back.

        Miranda hits her beer, looks him over, and then sets down her glass beside the freshly stacked tarot deck.  Her faded blue eyes flutter closed.


        "Heresdathing," Miranda slurs.  "Whenever I look at someone like this..." Her eyes slit, half open. "I see their past lives, all laid out like cards on a table."  She gestures, toppling the cards.

        "Go on."

        "Shush!"  Miranda's voice grows sharp.  "And right on the very top of your deck, I see a uniform.  It's black.  There's a swastika..."

        Dolan frowns, starts to reach for his beer but stops.  The crooked line of her mouth, the slight drooping of her left eye; it had to be a birth defect. Had she been ruined before she was even born?  The sadness of that thought holds him still.

        "Sieg heil!"  Miranda's arm slants up in a Nazi salute, almost hitting Dolan's face.  "Klaus?"  Her arm drops.  Her eyes open.  She stares at him, through him, beyond him, and then says with perfect clarity, "Your name was Klaus Schultz, and you worked as a mail clerk at Auschwitz."

        "That's ridiculous-"

        "Never scoff at a psychic."  Miranda shakes herself and looks around.  Abruptly she smiles.  "That'll cost you another beer."

        "You haven't finished the one you've got!"  Dolan glares at her.

        "You don't have to shout."  Miranda picks up her mug and drains it.  "There.  Get me another, will you please."

        "Oh hell."  However, Dolan drains his and goes behind the bar.  The Treats can lies on its side.  The voles have made good their escape.  This irritates him, or maybe he's irritated with Miranda.  No, it's that Nazi bullshit.  Nevertheless, he draws two beers.

        "Here you go."  Dolan plunks the beers down on her table and reaches for his chair.

        "You'll have to move," Miranda's voice hardens.  Her foot hooks his chair and she yanks it against the table.

        "What?  Why?"  He stares down at her.

        "I don't sit with Nazis."  Miranda turns her back on him, facing the woodstove, beer in hand.  "Even past-life Nazis."

        Dolan lifts his hands, makes fists, and then drops them.  He grabs his beer, stomps over to the next table, and slumps into a chair. Got to get along, go with the flow.

        "That's better."  Miranda turns back to face him.

        "I thought you didn't talk to past-life Nazis."  Dolan's well aware of the snide hostility in his voice.  Not that he ever was such a thing.  Nazis, he was raised to believe and still does, Nazis suck.

        "I said I didn't sit with them," Miranda says primly, and pulls her chair closer to her own table.  "But this is America and I'll talk to anyone over a beer."  She has a sip.  "It's probably not your fault.  You can't help what you were."

        "I'm not-"

        "Of course you're not.  Not now, anyway."  Miranda smiles her lopsided grin and lifts her beer in salute.  "But I know what I saw."

        "Christ."  Needing something to do, Dolan gets up, checks the woodstove, and slams its metal door with a loud clang.  "All I wanted was some advice on getting rid of the goddamn voles."

        "You know," Miranda stares thoughtfully into her glass.  "They're probably some sort of penance.  Maybe God put Jews into vole form so they wouldn't remember the horrors of their previous lives.  Maybe that's why you got so many.  God wants you to take care of them to make up for what you did."

        "But I didn't do ANYTHING!"  Dolan fights to control his voice.  "You said I was a mail clerk."

        "You wore the uniform," Miranda says smugly.  "No doubt you were just going with the flow?"

        "This is bullshit."  Dolan storms over to his table, drains his glass, and slams it down.  Miranda flinches, her eyes widening.

        "Careful now," she cautions.  "You bust things up; Leon won't let you drink here no more."

        "I'm leaving."  Dolan glares at her.  "Maybe I won't drink here anyway."  However, he takes his glass to the bar and puts it carefully into the sink behind the counter.  Something skitters past his feet.

        "Ever do the nasty on a bar table?"  Miranda smiles at him.

        Dolan stares back at her.  He walks over to his parka but doesn't pick it up.  "Uh no.  I haven't."

        "Are you interested?"  Miranda leans her chin on her hands and gives him a sweet if lopsided smirk.  "I do love a man in a past-life uniform.  Even if it is all black."

        Dolan opens his mouth.  No, he won't say it.  He was raised better.  He grabs his parka, wringing its fur-lined neck.  Turning his back on her, he marches towards the door, pulling on the parka and punching into its sleeves.

        "See ya, sweetie!"  Miranda cackles and slaps the table.  "Be nice to those voles now, Herr Dolan!"

        It's all he can do not to slam the door behind him.




Copyright © by Joe Murphy . All rights reserved unless specified otherwise above.

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