His bed was comfortable. He was clean, he was safe, and he was bored. He couldn’t think of another piece of furniture to make, and he had nearly memorized his poetry.
Enough fish hung in the trees to last until early March, and by then he would have had time to catch more. Hell, he succeeded! He succeeded so well that he had begun to help his animal friends who were fine, even better off, without him. Being overprepared with too much time is exactly what he had tried to avoid, and now he thought about declaring an early victory and heading home.
“No, no, no,” his father shook his head in the firelight and exhaled smoke through his nose. Snow fell outside and there wasn’t a sound besides the whiskey sloshing around in his dad’s bottle. Thomas grabbed his own bottle and drank from it as he confronted the old man.
“Now listen! I have done a damn good job of keeping myself alive since I got here! I wasn’t prepared for everything but I did it and I did it my way!” He drank some more and shook a finger in his father’s face. “I did it! The question is answered! The only thing left for me to do is sit here and survive for the next two months and it’s going to drive me crazy!”
“You can’t drive yourself to a place you’re already in, Boy! You’ve spent every night in this cozy little cabin for months, and now what? You are going to walk back through fifty miles of arctic deep freeze and expect to be warm at night? You’re giving up like I knew you would. You already got one miracle when you put that hole in the ice, and now you want another one? I can’t bail you out this time!”
Thomas looked at his watch. Three o’clock in the afternoon. Snow fell and packed onto his footpaths and woodpile. The sky was greyed out and dusk was creeping into the air. Soon another eighteen hours of night would follow, followed by more grey, and then more night. He did not need to fish, he had eaten all of the lentil beans he could stand, and there was nothing left to do or read.
“I could do it!”
“You don’t have a tent! You didn’t bring one because you’re a stubborn fool! You need to stay here, wait for spring melt, and walk your happy ass back through a tundra full of wolves and angry moose. That’s the reasonable thing!”
“I could leave tomorrow, or the next day, and at night I could use my tarps and bury myself under the snow. I have enough food, and I could make it in five days, a week tops!”
“Okay, okay,” Thomas paced the short width of his cabin in the near darkness. “Okay. I only move during daylight. That’s six hours each day to pack up, move, and hunker down again. I’ll need an hour to dig a shelter and an hour to dress and pack up, so that leaves four hours of movement per day. I can cover three-quarters of a mile per hour at a pace that doesn’t get me sweating. That means I’ll need… sixty-six days. Dammit! Wait! I’ll have over thirty minutes’ more sunlight every seven days, so that’s-”
“No! Wait!” Thomas drank some more. “I’ll leave non-essential items here, pack light to keep the going as easy as possible, and I’ll be seeing you before you know it. Right! Pack light and sweat less, longer days in time and make it!”
His father watched Thomas pick at the skin above his beard and pace his cabin. The old man sat into the wooden chair and put his feet on the table.
“You’re telling me you are going to spend eighteen hours a day in a snow shelter? You think you are going crazy now!”
“I’m not crazy!” Thomas snapped back. “I’m strong! You made me this way! You’ll see! It can be done and I am going to do it! Maybe I’ll walk two days at a time so I can sleep for twelve hours and get there three times as fast!” As Thomas spoke he could hear that he sounded crazy and shook his head. He put on his fur hat and gloves and rolled up the bison skin and opened the door. It was still snowing. The tarps covering the path to his woodpile were completely hidden. The sky was grey. Even Hooter hid itself someplace.
He turned around to the sound of his father patting a pack of cigarettes onto the heel of his hand.
“C’mon,” said the old man. “Why don’t you pull up a chair, stoke up these flames, and carve some tits into this table.” Thomas only had a few swallows left in his current bottle and he needed it to last until he heard the sweet dripping sounds of spring. “Come on! Come recite some of that poetry you are so tired of. Emile Dicksforbrains or whoever.”
Thomas sulked in the corner. His dad sat up straight and brushed the table with his hand to remove the dirt left by his brown boots. He gestured again for Thomas to join him.
“Emily Dickinson,” Thomas muttered. “You never cared about poetry. You never wanted to hear me say anything.” He wiped his eyes and rubbed his lips together.
“Thomas, I never wanted to hear anybody say anything.” The smell of cigarette smoke filled the cabin. “And I still don’t. Listening isn’t something you are able to do after you have been told the greatest lies there are from the people who sent you off to die. That and betrayal from someone who said they loved you will turn the most buoyant child into a gargoyle. I never told you I loved you because I didn’t want to say it and then turn out to be a lousy dad. It would cheapen the word and you deserve to know what love means and to have it and hold it like it was your own skin. I hoped you would find it with some nice girl and the both of you could run away and be happy and forget I ever existed.
“So don’t lecture me on what I want!” he snapped. “I actually don’t really want to hear your poems to be honest, but I asked and I asked for a damn solid reason and you don’t have anything better to do. Now wipe your sissy eyes and come have a drink with your old man!”
Thomas was grounded by the soft berating. His strength and wits returned in a wave of optimistic aggression. He stepped outside to retrieve the other chair, rolled the bison skin back over the door and sat it opposite his father. He put more wood on the napping coals and blew softly beneath the logs until a flame appeared. Then he got his metal cup and poured himself two fingers of whiskey.
Thomas sat down and stared at his whiskey bottle. Ten High. America’s Native Spirit. The old man lifted his cup and nodded a silent toast. They both drank and took deep breaths through their noses. The fire rose and illuminated the cabin with leaping yellow and orange shadows. The light framed the jagged, crossing lines in the old man’s face, as deep and black and mysterious as the depths of the earth, way down where secrets go to hide and stay hidden.
Thomas licked his teeth and stared at the table:
“There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself—
The grey sky and snow lasted a few more days. Thomas stretched and cooked, relieved himself, and retrieved wood from his woodpile. He recited the poetry he could remember, and read for the hundredth time the poetry he could not. Hours passed lying on his bed, drunk, face covered with the dirty shirt he didn’t feel moved to wash. When the desire to go sprinting nonstop to Healy concentrated into a searing pain in his heart, he would lie there and scream until his voice went hoarse.
When the snow finally stopped, Thomas cleared his walkway and his mind. The tarps were stiff and cracked in places but they still helped keep the walkway clear.
That first day of light was noticeably brighter than the last one and the difference felt like a warm, heavy blanket resting across the bridge of his nose. The worst of the darkness had passed and now the morning star was rising ever higher. Hooter was in its usual place.
“Hey Hoot! You made it!” Hooter ruffled its feathers and took one step to the side. “Going to be February pretty soon. Watch out for the heat wave!” Thomas went inside and reemerged with a shovelful of warm coals which he put into the firepit. He laid a bundle of grass and sticks over it and blew until it caught fire. The crushing hangover began to subside and he cooked fish for a late breakfast.
Afterwards he cut more logs and stacked them beneath his canopy. He also collected bundles of grass and hung them on his clothesline for kindling now that his lighter fluid was all gone. Instead of fishing he walked circles around the lake to get himself back into shape for the coming trek home. Every week added over thirty minutes to the daylight, so he planned to add around thirty minutes each week to his daily walk until the trees started to drip. Then he would set eyes on his home sweet home of Healy, march there with eyes blazing, and then sit himself down in The Spike and add to this story until he died.
It took a couple of days to shake off the hangover from his weeklong bender. Residue from the alcohol burned in his muscles and his joints felt like steel hinges that hadn’t seen oil in a century.
He thought about how to occupy himself during the next storm, what his dad would say when he walked through his front door in Healy, and how he would kiss the next woman he saw. Mostly, though, he tried to think of nothing, for beneath his desires was that thing he wanted to get away from; that polar privacy that stuck to him like leeches lodged between his ribs.
Get that grill ready, Pop!
That evening he counted the number of meals hanging in the trees and calculated extra intake for his walking plans. He would need a few more fish in the coming weeks, but not many. He made a quick estimate of the remaining provisions and laughed when he realized he could leave some beans behind. Good riddance!
The walking did him tremendous good. After a few laps his snowshoes packed a track around the lake which became consistently easier to follow. One afternoon, as he was rounding the apex of his circuit, a familiar face poked out of the snow and watched him with bright curiosity.
“Henry!” His voice scared the fox out of sight for a moment, but it slowly returned and put its face on its paws. “Glad I didn’t do you in!”
He walked for several hours each day, stopping occasionally to enjoy a cup of coffee and the view from his fishing log. He would recite old poems of Emerson’s, sometimes enjoying the company of Ralph and the family when they were nearby.
One day, the lake unleashed a sound like a whale sonar leaping into the air in great steely bursts. Then it sounded more like a battle of lasers in outer space, like two armies pelting each other with galactic ray guns. Then the sound of splintering bones attacked his eardrums and the ground trembled as the lake shifted in the sunlight. It was melting. It would make new, thicker ice that night and be just as frozen by the next morning, but the dawn of new life had finally come. Spring was near.
The longer days tested his stamina, and everything, his legs, his appetite, and his desire to leave, grew a little each day. His full dress for the Alaskan winter was too hot by the time the trees began to drip. The moisture in his nose no longer crystalized when he sniffed, and a tingling in his chest pulled his imagination into the city limits of Healy. He lost sleep from the excitement of returning, and no amount of whiskey or consultation with his magazine could calm his nerves enough to lie still.
He cooked what remained of his fish. What he could not eat, which was several pounds, he distributed into the containers he had available. He added boiled rice and spices and made six full meals to be his moveable feasts for when he finally left. He washed his hands and dirty clothes and smiled at the sight of his austere woodpile. It was now early March, just under five months since his arrival in late October, and he had survived. Thomas decided that after the next whiteout came and left, he would go home.
He fished out a few more trout, deciding that his six instant meals would be better left buried under the snow until his final thrust out of Denali. He put the bones and guts of his catch into the firepit as he ate, and from the corner of his eye he saw his father, sunken into his recliner, arms hanging over each side with a bottle of Ten High in one hand and a burning cigarette in the other. Thomas stoked the fires inside and out, washed his hands, and sat outside his front porch to watch the colors of the sunset climb up the terrain.
Within two days the sky greyed out and frozen clusters of soft ice once again covered everything in sight. He placed his sled beneath the canopy of his nearly empty woodpile, and began packing.
He put what remained of his rice into one of the washed out coffee tins and incinerated the bag in the fireplace. The bag of lentil beans went into the cauldron with an unused bottle of soap for the next person who happened by. One shot of whiskey remained and he poured it into his flask and put the empty bottles back in their box. He packed dried meat into his pockets for the walk back, and ate the last handful of dried fruit to put it out of his mind. Most of the nails had been used, the spices were empty, and the salt was almost gone. Everything else packed down nicely.
Empty tin buckets fit into each other and sat next to his box of empty bottles. In one tin he put six bundles of dried grass, one for each day he anticipated returning, and covered it to keep them dry. He drank his last sip of whiskey and burned the magazine after tearing from it a special page that held pair of glittering eyes had made him feel, in his worst moments, that he was not alone in the universe.
About the author:
Karsten is a world traveler, veteran, and outdoor enthusiast who has
traversed the mountains of Japan, the Ozarks, and the Colorado Rockies.