by Lee | Filed under Fiction
Here’s another short story. This one appeared in the visual arts magazine where I’m a contributing editor, Border Crossings, in 2011. It’s the story of two middle-aged siblings lost on their father’s ranch in Alberta.
Who do we mean to visit? they wondered on the approach. Really, our father? Or is he such a changed man we hardly count as his children? Siblings, yes, on a thread, they were still that. Jules was in the passenger seat of the rental sedan looking for bison behind the tall wire fences strung along the highway. And Shannon, the younger one by five years, driving the car as if it was one, a bison. (I changed their names to protect the family.) The Avis rental bison, Jules called her driving style, slow and skittish grazing along the highway. That’s enough, Shannon said. With her nose to the windshield, her chest pressed to the hump of the wheel, fingers gripped on the horns. He urged his sister to lean back and relax. I won’t till this trip’s over, she said.
Smacked in the face by wrinkles and grey hairs and ambivalence all at once in a single year, a swift decisive blow to what remained of her youth – thirty-one, that was a bleak year for Shannon. Possessions kept being divided up, month after month. Her fiancé put things on hiatus, then her mother moved to Invermere to be closer to the amethyst and radium, and to cap it off before Christmas her father retired early from his work on the Queen’s Bench, sold the family home in Calgary, and bought a bison ranch in the foothills of the Rockies.
Shannon felt a little torn apart ever since. Unwholesome for general consumption. But five years later and after one decent love affair, it was just this lingering sense in the back of Shannon’s mind of not being sure of anything. The sight of bison set her teeth on edge. The thought of eating bison made her belch airlessly. Even to see her brother, after nearly a year without contact, was a little off-putting.
Her older brother Jules was in a foul funk, too. He believed he saw right through their father’s bison ranch to what it really was. These hoary livestock were the defenses of a prep fleeing from some social crisis of dubious origin. Professional or private blow-out with society? Jules wondered. Or both. Or neither. Shame or fear or a woman, something, a bribe, blackmail, a secretary, something drove him off the Queen’s Bench, Jules guessed.
They saw fenceposts carrying the heavy handcrafted wood signs for his ranch. But no sight of an entry gate along the acres of fence running beside the highway. Shannon parked on the lip of the highway and the siblings scurried under the fence in a convenient spot and carried on by foot over through the scrub and tall grass.
Big Bison Tower Ranch, said Jules. Dad took me for lunch to some atrium pub in a bronze-glass skyscraper downtown where 2nd Street meets 2nd ave. I really thought he wanted to congratulate me in advance on becoming senior manager at Esso. Two guys sharing some memories, his of botched trials and me some HR bungles. His prosecutors and his juries and me saying how it’s like me swaying my staff. Tell a few droll off-the-record stories from divorce court, drug court, violent crime. He makes some Hearst jokes. Me make some Trump jokes. Nothing criminal. Old time whatever stuff between us we can say without raising a hackle. Everything goes well until he leans over very paternally and gives me a pat on the cheek that numbs me like a hockey slapshot. I can’t feel my face for it. I’m incredulous. I feel like I’ve got palsy. He pays for my steak and two cocktails. Then as we’re leaving he says it’s bison he wants to tell me about. Bison burger’s big money, he tells me, and more tax shelters than a pair of gloves. I said to him, Dad, buffalo, you’re a chief justice, what the hell are you talking about?
Meanwhile I haven’t seen a single bison or buffalo, said Shannon. Where are we?
West of Eckville.
After the siblings walked in silence for another ten minutes Shannon said, There’s a difference between bison and buffalo?
Jules spat to prove it.
Another hour hiking the foothills and no house in sight, not so much as a fence. They were in deep. The interior acres of their father’s ranch were carpeted in plenty of thriving grasses, silky waving wheatgrass and burly white-tipped fescue, and smattered with tiny wildflowers that coloured the sandy pools of bunchgrass. Black currants were caged in pointed violet-tinted thistle, hidden under tall nicotine yellow whiskers of fringed brome and oat grass, all a bit slippery underfoot, growing semi-wild.
Shewing apart a cloud of mosquitos with her many-buckled purse, Shannon said, He really trapped us this time. We walked right into his cage. Penned us in. Don’t be fooled, dear bison, wherever you are, he sure likes to let you think you roam freely, but then suddenly you find out he’s let you hang out to dry. Well, he knows I’m not happy. I told him on his voicemail, Did he expect me to drop everything and come live at a freakin ranch? Shannon skipped ahead over some sharp yarnballs of a red-veined plant. I mean, really, is sand pouring out his ears? Is he that out-of-touch with me? I am on the board of the Calgary Opera, that I love. I invested a lot to start up my career as a facilitator. And my friendships are important to me.
I know. I told Dad the same. I lied to him that I was too busy to uproot. I said I was studying finance because I took a foxy bank manager at HSBC on a date the day before, said Jules, rubbing his bald spot. Am I going to get sunburnt?
I didn’t lie to him, Shannon said. I am busy.
Rolling horizon, gentle climbs over and between brow-hills and lip-hills and chin-hills wrinkling off the frosted Rockies to the west. But still no sight of bison, or an eight-bedroom brick and marble bungalow with a saltwater pool the shape of a kidney inside an equatorial greenhouse, near a traditional red barn, and maybe a half dozen corrugated aluminum industrial farm buildings. This, according to the website.
And so they walked for another hour and twenty minutes. They walked until it was foolish to turn around. But also highly questionable to keep going.
Some debate was had between the siblings, got a little anxious, a little heated, a little like old childhood times, as to the question of what the fuck they should do. They were lost apparently, really badly. The argument was never over who was to blame. That was obvious, Dad and Mom were – it was whether they should follow the creek out or go to the top of the next caldera.
Or turn back for the car before sundow-ohohohwn, said Shannon bursting into a few tears at the end and said, I’m sorry, but the last three years have been so awful.
I know it, said Jules.
He punted a dusty cobble of dinosaur fossil off the toecap of his leather shoe, and the siblings watched with a sporting interest as it tumbled down the hill before him.
He said, Maybe one of us can get reception from the top of that hill and we can call him, we’re lost.
He can’t make me eat a bison, she said, kicking her own fossil to see whose would travel farther; …hers.
Jules kicked another prehistoric shard down the hill, a colourful little shell of opal ammolite, and this bauble went a shorter distance than the first two.
Jules yearned for the least pastoral thing he knew. The Western Club. Calgary’s oldest private club. The amenities, blingy and deluxe, the concierge immaculate, lockers, ballrooms, gymnasiums, climbing walls. The Western Club and the thawing conversation of its waitresses. The Western Club and its homemade chutney on the side of every plate. Specialties that offered such warmth to a middle-age bachelor lost in the snow. He took his Blackberry out of his jacket pocket and looked for messages. If he could get service, he could call someone, but who? Oh, to text a good old friend or a ripe new online dating connection to meet him for a rough game of squash followed by a light supper in the members-only restaurant. Members-only drinks in the lounge, members-only indoor mini golf, wifi, robes, condoms, steam rooms.
But this pasture was members-only, too, and more exclusive still, Jules realized. His father’s continental influence and wealth pushed Jules over the tall fence to the Western Club the same as it brought him here, to Big Bison Tower Ranch.
Shannon saw it all in her brother’s face and said, You should eat more whole grains. Listen to your breathing. We walk an hour and it sounds like you’re gargling Scope.
It’s been two hours plus according to my wrist. And you? I stopped seeing you for raquetball months ago. What do you do all day? Are you doing treadmill? Who do you talk to? Never me. Do you even call Mom any more?
Mom goes on about her crystal logic. I’m struggling to figure out who I am and Mom’s trying to nullify herself and vanish into the oneness. How can I phone the oneness? Unity is her thing, cosmic heart bleeding. Bugs me. But all Mom really wants is to eat yogurt, Shannon said, she picked up the ammonite shell her brother had kicked, looking at its colours, admiring the opal’s spiral of coppery reptilian scales.
Radium is not as cynical as this place, don’t you think? Jules said.
Eat vitamins. Do cleanses. Enemas. Week-long fasts. Mom’s idea is to fart without shame and rub crystals on her forehead, not hang out together or talk to us. She moved to Invermere to be closer to pools of radiation. That’s nuts. Look at her, she wants to purge. Retreat, mutate, purge, us, purge herself from humanity. She’ll only show up here if it can be in the form of a rainbow.
Who can blame? I feel for her, Jules said. Dad’s whole planetoid gravity sucked so many people to him. Did we ever have a family dinner without guests? He made her sick of humans. I sure inherited none of his talent for mingling. I once saw Dad drink from the lipstick rim on a woman’s wine glass as she watched, in front of spouses. And me there, too, Jules threw his hands in the air, I was just a child and I knew. He’s greedy. He made himself believe he was getting away with it, with everything. He was so generous, he was indestructible. He knew good people up and down the country. He loved to be asked for a gilded favour. This ranch is the result of too much gilt, I’m sure.
The siblings almost reached the sunny stream at the bottom of the valley when they realized something was seriously wrong. The creek was moving along quietly and idly, that was fine, but so was the bunchgrass and sandstones. Bison. From a distance the bison grazing were indistinguishable from rows of dark dry blades of fescue and thistle. Shannon saw out of the corner of her eye a giant shit-brown shag head raising up from the briar with its clean white horns pointed directly at her – blinked and growled with a huge long pale pink Kiss tongue shaking out, dripping saliva. Gaahh! The bison said and made an about-face and casually trotted away from them. Shannon felt the blood drain from her face and feet, and for a second she thought she might faint. It was too late for the siblings to turn back. The herd surrounded them, roaming the whole valley eating and curiously vocalizing, snorting and bleating about their small visitors.
Just act natural, said Jules.
Fear is natural, damnit. Any one of these things could kill us. Fuck, there must be hundreds.
I mean act cool.
Gaahh! from another unseen bison.
The two middle-aged children walked softly through the graceful ancients, each bison in its own iron mask, all that fur imprisoning the mind of a chilling, wise and cunning chief. So Shannon imagined. She saw a lot in common with her father in the wrinkled oval eyes of a bison, as if each bison was a heavy-smoking brown-bearded judge cursed to the lowest courts, seated on a giant bench of dreadlocks and muscle.
Seriously would trade all my gigabytes for a 12-gauge right about now, Jules said.
Oh, what an expression, said Shannon finding one bison blinking at her very soulfully. She was a wallowing cow bison seated on her rump in the dirt with her shaggy front hooves ready to push up her whole big powerful body at a moment’s notice. Her belly was spread out and her sour milky paps lay exposed, brightly greased by rough feedings. A ginger-haired calf tottered around her mother on frail cinammon sticks for legs. The calf whined and bleated and shivered its little body straight to the tail.
Shannon was not enough of a threat to her calf, the bison decided, to merit rearing up.
Hello, Shannon said. The creature studied Shannon carefully, heavily. What is it? Shannon said. What do you see? Tell me. What am I supposed to do, Mother bison? Tell me what to do.
The sight of her milk pearling at the teats made Shannon think of her pearl-white silk pijammas, logging on to monster.com every afternoon grazing for facilitator jobs with zero luck, not going outside her personal valley once the entire day, and never changing out of the pijammas. She looked into the bison’s clay face with its dark-skinned heavy-lashed eyelids and soft wet almond-round eyes pushed far back on the hairy face. A set of wide grey apelike nostrils steaming over a clownish mouth grinning huge square teeth. Cairn weighty head shawled in brown curls. Her bearded neck waddled on the muddy earth under her chin as she idly chewed the green thistle.
Then the bison turned her head to look at Shannon through the other eye for a second opinon. Curse of the supreme court judge, Shannon said in chills.
At the top of the next ridge a single bison kept watch beside a lodgepole pine. As the siblings climbed the hill the sentinel stamped his feet at their boldness. Big as a truck, he started honking open-mouthed epithets at them. Laborious tongue-lolling vocals trying to stall them, Gaahh! before gallopping off to scout from another closeby hill.
They saw the pine was planted at a high point with a clear view of the entire pasture over countless hills to far off in the west where Shannon parked the rental car.
Jules let out a Gah! of his own. The ranch house seemed to appear in front of them as suddenly as the bison did in the valley. At this elevation they were a few hundred yards to a fence, and beyond it, the brick and glass sprawling house of the website. They could even see a couple in front of the mansion standing beside a blue pickup. A man came from the driver’s seat of the truck, and a woman brought a steel tub from an outdoor kitchen centred around a stainless steel bbq grill. The siblings were starved.
Walking towards the scene, the siblings witnessed the man use a winch off the end of his pickup to hang a dead bison by its hindquarters. In a matter of seconds the pale pink balloon of the stomach, the size of a yoga ball, disgorged from a slit the man made down the animal’s belly, and after a few tugs and cuts, followed by all the blue and white and black smaller organs amid a great final gush of dark red blood. All of it was caught in the steel bucket and reeking, humid with skatole and bile and grass.
Hello? called Shannon meekly. Ha ha.
‘The fuck, you crazy, come through the pasture? the man said with a sneer into the sun, shielding his creased eyes with a bloodied rubber glove. Where’s your car? I’m Brent. He waved a butcher’s blade at her. As you can see I’m his ranch hand.
We got super lost.
I won’t shake your hand, Shannon. You’re just in time for burgers though. Hope you’re hungry.
The woman came up and surprised Jules while he considered the weird polite smile on his sister’s face, put her hand on his arm and squeezed, I’ll shake your hand. I’m Pasty. Pasteur. After the cow scientist? Surprise, I grew up near Willow Creek on a giant milk farm. My parents are industrial milk producers? What I love about working the bison industry is nobody wants to talk about milk.
I’m Jules, he said. But I grew up in Calgary around judges and civil servants not on a journey to the centre of the world. Or around bison.
Pasteur laughed politely. Cool. You’re lucky you didn’t get stamped to shit. I’ll see you for burgers, Jules. I gotta go throw this blood on our fertilizer before the stench makes me retch on your neck. A nice fatty cut, Brent.
Nothing but marble, said Brent.
Their father’s voice came from behind the truck: More marble than the floor of a courthouse, Brent.
Yes to that, said Brent, ripping off the bison’s fur coat with the short square blade and not a drop more blood lost.
Their father took Jules’s hand and pat him on the back to hug him, and greeted his daughter with the same customary hug, no one could avoid this tradition or improve upon it. They said a few words and eyed one another. Their father looked twenty years younger. His face was tanned and lean. He had lost much of the judge’s stomach and gained some width around the shoulders. It was cold and he was short-sleeved.
Oh, I just remembered. Shannon took the ammonite shell out of her purse. Jules found this in your pasture, she said. Do you know what it is?
He took it from her and looked at Jules incredulously, his eyes widened again when he looked at his daughter as she smiled to see the same face as the mother bison, his insolent, knowing, expectant, desirous, impressed gaze. It’s ammonite, her father said. It’s very rare.
It’s yours, Shannon said.
Thank you. I’ll show you inside once we’ve ate, their father drawled after he pocketed the gift from his children. Here now, he said, and Brent handed their father a rippling pink filet with a thick edge of shining fat and a membrane that enclosed the entire cut except for a single corner of exposed flesh. Let’s go grill, he said and while Brent finished the carcass, he walked his children to the quad bbq under heated parasols.
All flesh is grass, their father said. Twelve hundred acres of what traditional Blackfoot style pasture would look like, you could say. Their father started to explain his business while hefting the fatty bison filet back and forth from hand to hand as he walked and talked. Fences and horses is my big difference from the Blackfoot. Close to six hundred head, rotating five herds in pens. Hire a hundred fifty decent men once a month thereabouts to move them. One whole pterodactyl found, now in Tyrell Museum. Fresh air blowing straight off Mount Merchison every day. Year-round tan. Full moustache grown. Cowboy hat settling in. Their father was starting to joke now, but they weren’t familiar with this side of him, so he explained the latter half of his operation. I court chefs. This is my marble here, grass-fed sirloins. Sell Big Bison Tower burgers, sausages, and steaks to restaurants stretching from Seattle to Saskatoon. Plus a secret burger recipe, he said and waved his hand over to where Pasteur stood.
Jules watched Pasteur wiggling her butt as she mixed fresh seasonings for the bison in a bowl pressed against her belly. Then she found drinks while Brent ignited the propane on the grills and laid out cooking tools across a little metal surgical table. The five of them stood on the stone patio with alcohol to drink, overlooking the rolling fields. Shannon’s car was somewhere under the shadows of the Rockies. Deal with that tomorrow, Brent said. I’ll drive you. Missed your exit’s why. Shannon’s head was dizzy from the day and her appetite.
Jules combed his fingernails through his hair, eye on Pasteur. Now that he was no longer so lost and knew he’d eat a bison burger or two, his thoughts turned again to the loneliness of his days spent at the members-only Western Club. He wondered if Pasteur was his father’s lover or Brent’s or could she be waiting for him? Nervously, he distracted himself with the Blackberry.
Make yourself useful, said their father and set Jules to pushing the bison chop through the old cast iron black meatgrinder to make raw burger. Pasty, dear, he said in a funny sweet voice, have you got that bowl ready for meat? Giving ohis son the mixbowl and its eggy aromatic coagulate, Stir so the meat is all together with the secret recipe, Jules. Nothing worse than a clump of secret recipe in a burger patty. Mix that burger evenly as you can.
Ok, I will. Jules put some shoulder against the hand-grinder, and with a little push, threads of meat spooled out in broad lengths like hair, mottled red and white, into the bowl. A few minutes later he was stirring together ground bison and secret recipe to make enough Big Bison Tower burgers for five. It was late summer and the sky was a blue-green, stained a dragon purple. The evening shadows frosted grass. Shannon was eager to accept Brent’s offer to go find her a suitable parka from the house, and saw this as her chance to follow him inside for a peek at her father’s new home before dinner, thinking, Life seems to promise families that what they see in each other, others do not see, and can never see any of what others see in themselves.
Marsha Lederman wrote a profile of me and the book for the Globe & Mail. Click the picture to read the article.
Here’s a few screen captures of the websites of the four literary festivals where I’m so-far scheduled to appear at in the upcoming months October and November to read from my novel The Road Narrows As You Go. The Vancouver Writers Festival, the Ottawa Writers Festival, Toronto’s IFOA, and the Victoria Writers Festival. Click on the images to go to the actual sites for more details about these readings and the many other awesome writers.
by Lee | Filed under Fiction
I wrote this short story about a muzzled environmental scientist in 2012, first published over at Five Dials, and I thought I would reprint it here in celebration of the discovery of the old Franklin ship in the Northwest Passage.
The ice shelf I went to study was almost two thousand miles due north of a place like Manhattan, and roughly the same size. Don’t get the picture I requested such a remote assignment. I didn’t. With all I’ve got going on at the Alberta branch office for Northern Affairs, overseeing two dozen slatternly, distractable young career bureaucrats, plus the fact I’m an old man with an old man’s point-of-view and a growing family of inlaws and grandchildren, it never dawned on me that out of all the other younger more mobile, more ambitious staff available I would be singled out to survey the melting ice.
You know I’m more of an administrator these days, I explained to the committee chairman over the drinks he invited me to one evening. We were at a hotel bar in Edmonton and the wind across the parking lot outside was sending snow past the windows at a perfect horizontal. The year was 2011. I told him I hadn’t been on the ice in years, not since the Nineties.
But you were our unanimous choice, the committee chairman told me. As his hand squeezed my shoulder, he gave me a wink of regret that I’m sure I was supposed to interpret as congratulatory.
The committee chairman told me the deal: Spend the entire summer on the glacier, write a full report of my findings as to its general condition, its beaches, and its fragile terminus. That was all. Here was an even more unsacrificing environment that required my attention ahead of my petty, squabbling, vindictive, and ultimately elusive family. And, really, what did I care about my selfish problems at the office? All it took was a handshake in a Four Points Sheraton and I became completely removed from all those seemingly inextricable affairs that had made my life at work and home so uninhabitable over the past few decades.
I knew going in that I would be isolated on this forty-five hundred year-old frozen shelf. I knew that the ice shelf was no longer needed to support any human life. The Inuits who used to hunt there every winter for hundreds of generations now found safer ways to get food than on the shelf. But it never occurred to me or obviously to anyone on the committee that the ice shelf itself might detach from the continent that summer and be set adrift, and that I would be aboard this strange island.
Take us to the second steppe, I told the pilot.
I heard him respond in my headphones, Yep, just point to the spot you want me to drop this bird.
As the helicopter peaked over the landscape before beginning its sidelong descent, I could see the ice shelf for what it was, how it spilled out from the eastern side of Baffin Island and floated out into the Davis Strait in Arctic Ocean like a giant snow-covered popcicle, a twin popcicle, twice as long as its sticks. This most famous ice shelf formed south of the Iquarlirtuuq wildlife sanctuary and the Barnes ice cap, pushing snow and ice down between two Precambrian prongs of steep granite mountain, filling in the long fjords of these peninsulas with solid glacier edging year after year further and futher out into the frigid seawater with stunning confidence and total impassability. But it was nonetheless a long popsicle of snow and ice even with its own mountains and valleys and lakes and rivers, wild slushy terrain, home to fearsome acclimated creatures, polar bears, caribou, walrus. It was something to behold. And now the ice was falling apart.
Summer was steadily inching the temperature up to zero. All I wanted was to stake out a decent basecamp: protected from polar bears. My first day I dug out a small snow shelter called a quinzee from a deep mound of hardpacked snow and made do with that and sleeplessness for the time being. Then, a day or two later as I was walking, I marveled at a halo of blue atmospheric light in an area of the snow up a fair distance ahead, and I shoed my way towards it. I heard what I thought was laughter and watched a flock of snow geese pass overhead like men on their way to a formal ceremony. As I approached this lamplight under my feet, the sound of the snow crunching and squeaking with solidity as I walked calmed me. I came to the where the snow was tinged with this soft even light, a robin’s egg blue above what I took to be a good cave, and fell to my knees to listen. Recalling my young and tumble graduate school days, back then I would have put my shovel in right then and there. I was a safe enough distance back from the lip of the second steppe, which I noted during our landing in the helicopter was calving large blocks of snow regularly down a sheer cliff half a mile high. Here as well the terrain was becoming craggy but it appeared to be totally secure. With an axe I sought a nearby entrance to the cave, and within the hour had found my way down into it and learned of its true grandeur. I pegged my tent under a beautiful vaulted proscenium as high as a Broadway stage all made of packed firn snow and ice that was shallow enough at its ceiling to allow the nightless sky to fill the cavern with an incandescent blue as though my new residency was submerged in a heavenly water, while all around me curtains and pillars of icicles glittered in the shadows as the cave progressed narrowly down to unknown trickling depths. Fresh icewater drained idly from the south wall into a small bowl at one side of the cave which I even used like a faucet and sink to wash.
I recall it was the day after I had my camp all settled and I felt prepared to do some research and reportage when I heard a crack I thought was a gunshot. Nothing moved. The report was as loud as if someone was right outside the entrance to the cave firing a shotgun directly at me. A part of me wasn’t convinced that it was a gun even as I climbed to the surface to see who was there. Naturally nobody was. The snow was once again a sublime blanket of silent white that not even the shadow of a single goose displaced. After a time I allowed myself to dismiss the incident and carry on with my work as if nothing major had happened, even as the shelf began to drift away from the shore.
Maybe I was too familiar with all the sounds snow can make and I wasn’t enough disturbed. Nothing surprised me in this ambient landscape of sere white, a lifeless white without fault or promise, blinding as fire at its horizons and monochromatic in all directions. I grew up on the northern prairies. But I knew the glacier shelf was different than land after the glacial retreat. This was a land that was not a land. An unlandscape more like a mirror of the sky.
In the endless musical cycle of the seasons, the fermata of winter grows more brief every year over Earth’s northern composition, I wrote in my report. There is no rest for the ice today. Poetry? I can only say I was lonely. On a clear cloudless afternoon under the smoldering sun, I alone heard the old house of the ice shelf creak and groan and swell and gasp, pop and whine for hours like it was being battered around. The north of my youth, its barrenness and silence, was replaced by the agony of constant erosion, of deep underlying tensions and humiliating collisions. The crack was only the first of many grisly noises I heard, but it was the one signaling the separation.
The committee budgeted for a two-way radio to be my partner over the summer. It was some kind of miracle, after my stubborn colleagues and family, that I could charge my radio’s electricity simply by winding it up like a pocketwatch in order to listen to an hour of public broadcasts of classical music, or to call my man with the helicopter if I needed supplies or other assistance.
I said I would radio the pilot at the end of five days to give him a status update, and so not long after I heard the ice shelf break from the continent and I began, unwittingly, to sail out into the ocean, I reached my pilot, and, because I had no idea anything had changed, told him my basecamp was coming along fine. Weather was balmy. I didn’t keep him on the line very long. I knew besides the helicopter, the pilot also operated a bar and nightclub with live music out of a doublewide RV trailer he had plugged in at the nearby town of Pangnirtung. Pangnirtung, with its small population of Inuits whose ancestors lived in the area for over four thousand years, added to that a few government-sent carpetbagging Whites there for a season, all living in houses on piles.
Talk loud I can hardly hear ya. Everything going according to plan out there or what? the pilot shouted. In the background on his end of the line there was much laughter and conversation and music.
Lap of luxury, I radioed back.
What’s that you say?
I forgot Kit-Kats.
Kit-Kats, eh. That a favorite of yours?
Never mind, I said. I’ll radio when I need fresh supplies. Bring a carton then.
I considered writing my wife a letter to send back with the pilot when he next flew in: I was sent against my will to the summer ice, the letter might begin, but where would it go from there? You left me in the winter for a hot zone. I imagined her in her pashmina shawl and sandals, flanked by male escorts in penguin suits, standing in the middle a million protestors in Cairo, mobilizing the women.
I did report on all the noises I heard, meanwhile, including the false gunshot. I reported that there was seldom ice floe around the shelf, just clean clear ocean that was tempting to swim in. I reported on all the rivers and lakes on the surface of the ice shelf and of the flumes of livid bacterial water that I saw disappear into a labyrinth of crevasses. Great lakes of freshwater were said to exist under the surface. I reported on the warm water in the potholes where I did decide to swim. I reported on the occurrence of calving at the first and second steppes and the waterfalls that gushed down them. I do recall how the sun careened about the sky. I chalked it up to summer at the pole and how the strange seemed ordinary here. I hadn’t considered the shelf was turning. My compass was the landscape.
Day by day I was beginning to fall into a kind of easy bliss that made the hard work feel more like a vacation, hiking for hours amid cold nothingness as though in a trance, so absorbed in finding ways of articulating my impressions of this colossal, atavistic ice shelf that I forgot why I was alone. I put aside the miseries, treacherous and accidental, of home, family. I reported on whatever wildlife I saw, such as the birds, or when I took pictures and wrote a lengthy account of a solitary polar bear stranded on a nearby iceberg like an arctic Crusoe. And the look on his face as he raised his black nose to the wind was beyond pitiful, I wrote, as if the polar bear was not sure whether to swim off to safety or continue to ride the iceberg as it took him farther out to sea.
Rereading this entry months later and looking at my pictures, I realized the polar bear was the one on the mainland and I was the Crusoe. I was adrift. And the look on this polar bear’s face was of pity, but, and also confusion – his entire kingdom sailing by, and me on it.
By the time a month had passed I was too far out to sea to reach the pilot by radio. I tried but never with any luck. The weather was confusingly mild. The sky was a hot jellied azure without cloud. I got a tan. So I saw no reason why I couldn’t get a radio signal. My porridge and other camp meals were eaten.
More than the warmth of my family, or the climate of the office I middle managed, I found I craved a certain brand of chocolate candybar from the dispensing machines at the office of Northern Affairs that I didn’t think to pack any of. At the same time the helicopter with my box of Kit-Kats would have been at a loss for where to land his cargo, since his destination had vanished, this missing treat was all I could think about. This crispy candybar composed of its segmented wafers coated in chocolate and seperable into single finger-length sticks, which found no equivalent in my dwindled food rations, unfortunately, was what I missed the most about my life. To break off and eat the Kit-Kat sticks. Instead I was sucking on icicles and trying to slingshot to death a snowgoose.
That second month on the ice shelf made me ecstatic with the sense of adventure. Cut off from radio contact with civilization was the kind of mild threat I can say, honestly, I almost looked forward to before leaving. The superabundance of wildlife this time of year and my rifle made a hunt something of a non-issue, more like shopping. The ice shelf felt like a big vacation from my responsibilities at work and at home. I hardly needed sleep. The twenty-four hour daylight on the ice shelf gave me a tireless mental endurance. After long hikes of discovery during the day I found time to read and write in the evenings. Evenings without night. Midnight would come around and I would sit happily for hours gulping back sealmeat and writing my thougths out while the sun hung like a golden pendant in a rose sky almost as cold as it was warm. To whomever, I wrote, A jewelled sun frozen for hours and hours at the horizon but never touching down on to the blue velvet ice before making its ascent once more and touring the skies all day. The arctic solitude of never-ending daylight had its thawing effects. As I watched the spring rivers clumped with frazil and rime pour into the haptic sea, I didn’t see it as anything more than the runoff of wild ideas passing through my mind, and the sound was just my sobs of relief. And the barnacled Mona Lisa faces of the grey whales as they breached in the ocean seemed to swim backwards and forwards simultaneously as thoughts tend to do, and the fat, teardrop-shaped walrus who squealed and farted and swam amok along the shores catching fish between their whiskers were all just my dirty thoughts during this brief fit of poetic madness in which I believed myself to be a kind of Shackleton of the mystical North.
So it was unbeknownst to me that I was aboard a giant iceberg, moving steadily out to sea with every uncounted minute. The metallic blue waves I photographed and reported on were not lapping at a stationary coastline as I assumed, but the sides of an enormous oceangoing vessel the seals were chasing after.
At the outset I knew there was no doubt the steppes were of importance to my report. There was no way for me to tell beforehand in what precise way the steppes would impact my report and so I spent much of my time obsessing over them, fearing them, even while my original assignment became irrelevant.
All I knew was that I needed to see the northern shores of the third steppe or the committee would find my report incomplete. Each steppe was itself the result of an immense quake along three fault lines that appeared in the last decade of the twentieth century, going straight across the shelf east to west. The quake created sheer cliffs that dropped nearly a mile and, after years of good sun, ran raggedly and serrated and with waterfalls like three chipped-tooth stairs for an ice giant, mountains forming and vanishing at an accelerated pace.
The third and last steppe I feared the most and avoided the longest as it was the closest to sealevel. Its drop into the ocean was less sheer and more sloped as its terminus collapsed into a thick slushy floe of sticky water called polynya, where thousands of puzzle pieces of runaway iceberg loitered. On the third steppe, temperatures in the winter plummeted to seventy degree celcius below zero. Nothing moves. The day I chose to make my first visit I wanted the weather to be below zero and not warmer. I did not want to encounter any sinkholes or avalanches.
Would have been years ago as a bachelor when I was doing field work in the North and I first witnessed the Northwest Passage when it was frozen over and millions of acres of ocean were joined with the last steppe of the ice shelf, no different than winter in the prairies where I was raised. Snowblanketed waves, frozen as they stand. Long flat slabs of ice like billiard’s tables broken into pieces of snow called firn. Firn like untouched children’s playgrounds. Firn like the walls of motels or prisons. Open holes in the firn near the floe edge where narwhal and orca came up to breathe. Then, early Spring and the first floating pancake ice, then slush, the polynya glueing together the icebergs. Some icebergs I saw grew to the height of skycrapers, as manifold in design as military citadels, and among their flotsam, thousands of smaller icicled snow gazebos emerge, hundreds and thousands of neighborhoods made of ice floating precariously on top of the sea. And for the imaginary man here to report on nothing and able to endure the lunar temperatures of winter, narrow pathways ferruling through snowdrift valleys mazelike in a forbidding white world. A world unknown even to itself, and every year anew. By summer this elaborate outer sheath of ice got dashed and broken apart and slushed away by the sun.
As the walrus and seals and whales and birds arrived, I watched as, like a vagabond ghetto, shattered parts of the ice floe set off in smaller and smaller groups with icebergs disappearing into the chopping waters until once again only the ice shelf remained. Locked to our continent since the Ice Age, its shape has remained relatively constant until recently. Now even the core was fading.
I used to still meet smiling families of Inuit who thrived off the preserves of the ice shelf, camping near the areas that melted early and exploiting the breaking floe. I always wondered how the Inuit stayed so much in love in such small dwellings under these harsh conditions and pitiless terrain, when my own family still found it so hard with all our good fortune to agree where in the world we should all meet.
At some hour during the continous stretch of day that was midJuly on the ice shelf I cut off my beard and washed my sweaters, and feeling determined to set out for the third steppe, I charged up my radio and for hours and hours all I did was listen to the waves of static or asked if anyone could hear me when I spoke into the microphone.
When the radio was turned off or uncharged I often sat and talked to the radio regardless. In time I saw more and more face in that radio and saw less and less radio. Two speakers like bug eyes on either end, in between them a channel dial that was a long mouth full of teeth, and a string of buttons under a knob you twisted that made a sort of perfect nose and moustache. I mused over my radio’s face for lack of a moon in the sky.
Isolation provides a person with a startlingly clear picture of their own inner landscape, I told the silent, uncharged radio, as we assayed the uniformly white surface of the ice shelf from the peak of basecamp.
I feel comfortable around you like I can tell you anything, the uncharged radio told me.
I never considered suicide, but I have dreamed of a place where I could not exist. Now look where I am. Nowhere and nothing, I said with a shiver.
People respect me, the uncharged radio confessed, but inside I feel like a total a fraud.
Am I better off alone here instead of taking care of business back in Edmonton?
I faint at the sight of rust so if you see any corrosion don’t say a word to me, ok? said the uncharged radio, just promise me if you can you’ll do something about it.
Man versus Environment, that’s what it all boils down to, doesn’t it? I said.
Radio versus Man, the radio said.
Is that how you feel? I asked.
Don’t listen to me, the radio said, I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.
So I shut up, too, turned the radio on, and dialed around to various stations of white noise hoping to find anything, classic rock, Russian news, until both the radio and I fell asleep.
My style was nothing heroic – I roped off every fifty metres as I approached the cliffs of the third steppe, so that when I fell down an icy fissure hidden under a layer of snow as thin and crumbling as storebought biscuit soaked in tea, I dangled by my harness with a chance of surviving. Pulling myself up from the chasm took the better part of an afternoon and when I got to the top I wept and dry-heaved for what seemed to be the first beautiful minutes of darkness and stars since I had arrived.
By the time I reached the jagged, messy terminus of the third steppe I was snowblind and exhausted from panic and I thought I might find some shelter in one of the weather-formed quinzees. Who knows how long I was out. I awoke bleerily starved and pushed back out into the wind and sunlight to the shore to kill something. The ground here was sinewed by miles and miles of melt-ice lakes festooned by phytoplanktonin blooms as thick and green as pea soup. As a graduate student I came here to study these cyanobacterial mat communities, and my predictions for their influx sounded almost satirically dire then, but still what lay before me was more stark. Today these pools stretched across the ice like psychotic stab wounds that sank hundreds of feet under the surface. Strewn along the edges of these snaking ponds were the remains of thousands of broken shells of dead pteropods. After my first visit, I named them potato chips of the sea for how popular and abundant these tiny winged snails were as a basic food for so many oceangoing species.
I used to call this place Qigiktaaluk but now I just called it Baffin. I was standing up to my knees in a frosty cove of murky green waves and dead snails, all set up to shoot the prettiest little grey and white spotted sea lion for dinner when a hand came down on my shoulder that for all my wits I could have sworn was the hand of the Northern Affairs’ committee chairman’s, and froze me solid.
Don’t move, he said. He took my rifle from my shoulder and turned me around so that I could see who I was dealing with.
You can come with us, the man said. He wasn’t the committee chairman at all thank god, but nevertheless someone of his seniority. We just loaded up if you’re hungry, the man added.
He backed away a few feet and I got a look at his sun-reddened cheeks and nose, and his wild white eyebrows hung down over his wireframe glasses like icicles and his old watery blue eyes shimmered cloudily with grey and pink muscles like they were fisheyes. There was a dent in his chin so deep it looked as though he lost part of it to frostbite. He was dressed in what he obviously thought was a cool combination of black parka and animalskins for a jacket. He wore frayed acid-wash denim cutoff shorts and his pale pink knees had knuckles like worn-out fists and his feet were shoved bare in to black spiked workboots. Along with my rifle he carried his own storebought poleaxe. Fit, hale, unprepossessing, and standing right in front of me, he looked my age. He was a lot older. He had on a pair of self-shading bifocals that he pushed up the bridge of his nose as a matter of habit. Behind him I saw there were another five or six others, men and women of various ages, dressed in similar make-do wardrobes from the shambles of mountaineering and hunting expeditions updated with ragged skin and furs, bone and baleen. Carrying animals from a hunt. And all wearing glasses. I was wearing my own prescription self-shading lenses.
Let’s go, show you the way, he said.
I need to get my radio, I said with a thumb pointed to the second steppe.
Never mind your radio, the man said. That’s old news. You’re here now, might as well get a last look for yourself.
What you’re here to see, right? The terminus.
I fell in line with the others as the old man showed us all back up through the crag via ice switchbacks that led away from the shore singlefile out of the cavity of this hulking ruin of snow and ice and back to where I’d sheltered. Now the colours in the ice shelf ran from blue to bloodred as the sun skated sickeningly low against the lip of the horizon.
You’re not Inuits are you? I asked.
The old man eyed me. You expect to find us speaking extinct languages, talking about the sun as though he was our uncle. And here I go and tell you we are you – some of us are Aboriginal but we are all scientists. All called to report on the condition of the terminus on the third steppe of the ice shelf.
My name’s Doctor Gavin Stott, I said.
He said his name was Craig and he was from Minot, North Dakota. But some of us, he said, like Lucy Peltier and Oscar Weaver are more your locals.
I recognize the names Peltier and Weaver. Aren’t they glaciologists?
Craig said, Peltier came at glaciers via atmospheric physics I believe. And Weaver is a geodynamic modeler specializing in paleoclimatology. I am the plain old glaciologist around here. Don’t want to admit it, said Craig, but I still recall ’92 as the year of my lucky third wedding. What a sylph. Half my age with a doctorate in cryosphere-hydrosphere-lithosphere interactions, eh. Please imagine how happy I was. Thought I was dead in heaven. Then came nineteen-ninety-three and the triple quake on the ice shelf gets me sent here from Northern Affairs to scribble a few words. What a load of dung.
I told him I came to visit in the 1970s and uttered a few noncommittal words of my own about where I was the year of his report’s deadline.
We all got jobs in ‘93. Some better than others, the man said and started walking ahead of me, a good lead of ten steps with no apology. I had to follow trying not to look as if I intended to catch up with him.
On average I’d say you happen twice every year. I come across a professional trekker with her sunburnt nose pointed to the third steppe, drunkstepping snowblind and about to die. And did you see? We broke off from the mainland in June and are now drifting southeast.
I did not know that, I said and took a deep breath. But now that you mention it, that would explain some mysterious things.
Yes, starting with a great cracking sound like a canonblast in your backyard?
Yes, I said,…and that, too. That, too.
Many hours later I was staring into the spectacle of the little fire burning inside Craig’s shelter thinking about home. Our dinner had been around a large camptable inside a stretched igloo the group built for communal meals. I drank a boiling cup of fish soup or two and my fill of caribou. The conversation was all about the fact we were floating out to sea, and where possibly to. Some of the scientists imagined us docking at Ellis Island, or down the Rideau, or as far south as the Panama Canal. No one seemed to show any fear however that we were going to sink. After a dessert of candied arctic char, Craig invited me to come join him and some others to sit by the firepit in his beautifully done quinzee. These yurts, snow burrows, and firnmade geodomes they inhabited were all thrown together by a fierce winter I knew to have a recombinant power the likes of Liebeskind or Gehry. The third steppe was a panorama of a million panes of shattered firn ice, firn ice all covered in a thick coat of rimely snow, as if a mammoth snowmade tower had imploded here, and under this concrete-like debris was hidden a community of natural quinzees inhabited by a dozen or more people, each hovel appearing behind a different entryway.
Craig’s was a spacious eleven-hundred-square-foot cabin of slabs of firn with a loftspace designed with a king-sized bed, and a firepit in the centre of the living room on the main floor. I watched single particles of snow fall through the manmade vent in the ceiling above the fire as though the stars I could not see in the blue sky were dropping one by one from the heavens.
My children were spectres in the fire and my grandchildren the yellow and orange sparks tossed upwards to kiss the bluesnow ceiling of Craig’s shelter, and now and again I saw my wife in the embers. Here was my family, without a shared continent between us. A wife on the streets of Egypt leading the charge of a women’s rights foundation, followed everywhere by her male secretaries, her suffering lovers. Oldest child stationed by an NGO in Lima, another consulting on pollution in Tokyo and Yokohama and living in Seoul, a third teaching First Nations languages at Oxford. Could I say I was proud, even if none of us got along?
Is that your stomach? Are you still hungry? Craig asked me.
Opposite. Stuffed, I said and shifted my weight back on my haunches looking around the large enclosed space to compliment him on the layout, tools hanging from the walls. Ice tools, like my rifle, that I pictured hanging from the belts of the scientists, before they joined Craig.
How much time do you figure we have till the ice shelf melts? I asked.
Craig sat up straight on his bench and crossed his arms and said, All depends where we sail. We seem to be moving at a fair clip. Third steppe is the worst for wear. Comes to it, we relocate the group to the first steppe where the ice is thicker. The latest estimates say the ice runs more than a thousand metres deep, as in double the height of the World Trade Center. So, any predictions how long we last?
Not me, I said.
Craig thumbpicked his nostrils clean. We might get lucky, he said, and moor nearby off some other peninsula and live out the rest of our lives as if nothing ever happened.
That’s true, I said, and then thinking of something else to say, I added, Oh, I thought I might get my rifle back from you now.
Craig eyed me from under his glasses, not unfriendly-like. And with a voice full of a courteous sarcasm that I know us geoscientists save for dealing with bureaucrats, finally said, If I give you back your rifle, how can I be sure you won’t for some reason turn it against me, or any one of us?
I looked at the old man and said, Because that would be murder, Craig. I’m not a murderer. I’m a climatologist.
Craig nodded and sucked his bottom lip. The firelight and shadowplay across the features of his face made him look ancient and guru. I’m glad to hear you feel that way, I am. But I still won’t give you back your rifle, I’m sorry. It’s just too valuable for the community to risk losing.
But it’s my rifle. Where am I going to go now?
The man who sat down beside me in Craig’s quinzee might have been forty at the outside but he was so big and weatherbeaten he looked my age. His head was tanned beyond expression, bald up top until hair started growing again behind his ears styled in a dark grey beaver-tail dreadknot that flapped against his back and smelled strongly of road tar. He was tall and slope-shouldered, the shape of an atom bomb, and wore a Rolling Stones t-shirt. His bare arms were that prickly gooseflesh of someone who can tolerate the chill because of obesity. Moreover, he was knackered, with purple bags under his eyes. I asked if he was my guard and he told me I wasn’t a prisoner any more than he was. I asked if he had a Kit-Kat then. He told me he wished. I have one cigarette left, he said and showed me. So we went outside to smoke it and watch the sun break out from behind a foreshortened thundercloud.
Told me he was a radiocarbon dater and when he accepted the assignment to come here he was acting Chair of his department at a prestigious university in the city of Waterloo. At the time of his departure, he said his oldest child was a car thief and his wife just left him for someone she met going to AA.
I nodded my head, Ok. Go on, I said. Now I get you.
The radiocarbon dater told me how he was assigned by Northern Affairs to come to the ice shelf and report on what he discovered, but when he got here he found the same thing I did, Craig.
In college we never learned about 1978, when the first glaciologist, Dr. Baruch Craig was sent to the shelf, he told me.
I’m Gavin Stott, I said and put out my hand. I’m a good old climatologist.
The radiocarbon dater shook my hand and said, Stott. Oh, ok, I’ve heard of you. I’m Keeling. Vincent Keeling.
Keeling. The name rings bells. I looked at his face more closely for the imprint of familiarity, something that might anesthetize me to the sight of that asphalt blob of dread dangling off the back of his sweat-ringed neck proposing to be his hair.
Here comes Peltier, I’ll introduce you, Keeling said. She was my thesis advisor when I studied in Helsinki.
But just as Keeling began to open up a discussion, Peltier ran right past us, shouting, Airplanes.
Now I saw other residents of the third steppe ducking into the nearest quinzees for cover. I heard the screams of two jets incoming and the upset climatologists around me only made me want to smile. I wondered if my helicopter pilot was among the search party flying above us. Keeling took one last haul and gave me the roach end of his cigarette. Before running off he put a hand on my shoulder, and with a wink, I took to be commiserating, said, Finish it off.
I hid under the ice.
Hope to see you there, buddies!
You can find out more about the book if you check out the Hamish Hamilton site or Amazon or wherever.
After the reading at Lucky’s, we’re going to go across the street to the A&N Legion for book signing and hanging out.