The reason I flew one cold March morning to the airport in Resolute Bay, Canada was not for my own satisfaction. Rather, it was for a longstanding friend of mine, Evelyn. Two years ago, her beloved Tobias Smith Wydell, her fiancé, had landed in this same place, the first step on his tour to the North Pole. He never got there, he never returned home.
In the immediate aftermath, there’d been searches, as much as was possible given the circumstances, which wasn’t much. Prior to starting, he’d waived liability (as required by the tour contract). There was no criminal investigation. The truth was, that giant frozen hellscape ate people for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No reason to think it didn’t eat Tobias also.
But there was no body, and until there was, Evelyn clung to the prospect, however unlikely, that Tobias still lived. She flew to Resolute Bay and inserted herself into the conversations at pubs and bus stops, much to the displeasure of the local inhabitants. She would have inserted herself all the way to the North Pole, but she had a heart condition. But the circumstances of Tobias’ misfortune consumed her day and night. Eventually, she turned the impetus of her desperation on me. Would I go there, myself, she begged, to learn what she could not. Long ago, we’d been together, Evelyn and me. I still cared about her. Despite my better judgement, after some time I relented. I couldn’t just up and leave, though. Trips of that magnitude must be booked far in advance. There were permits, contracts. I’d been in good shape then already, but good wasn’t enough. What followed were months of training like nobody’s business. On a cold March afternoon, I was lean and ready when I stepped from that miserable propellor plane that bucked like a horse.
It was only at Resolute Bay that I finally met the remaining members of our expedition team: two other men and one woman. We talked for a long afternoon, reviewing the plans, the final contractual agreements. That and one single dinner were all we had to forge the bond that must sustain us for sixty days, eight to ten hours a day of arduous travel across the great expanse of man-eating ice sheets. Then we scattered to our respective hotel rooms, snatched a few hours of shuteye before boarding the 4am flight from Resolute Bay to Ward Hunt Island.
Five hours later, the plane disgorged us all, then left again before the weather turned bad. And there we were, four strangers and six sled dogs, five sleds, and never in my life had I experienced such desolation, the sheer scale of it. The degree of nothing. I stood there a long time, staring into the distance, but our guide was yelling in the background, urging us to get ready. Already, he was rigging the dogs. They yapped and howled. Their sled carried three hundred-fifty pounds of supplies. I strapped on my skis, clipped myself into the body harness leading to my own sled, two hundred-fifty pounds of it. I leaned into the straps, felt them catch. I glanced up at the sky.
It had been light for hours already, sunrise at 3 a.m.
The standard temperature at the Arctic Circle is cold as fuck. Sometimes more, occasionally less. Just as I’d never known such desolation, I’d never known such cold, so unrelenting. I’d experienced extreme weather before, for minutes, sometimes for hours. But whatever hardship I’d known then paled compared to what I suffered now, never above zero (Fahrenheit) except inside the tent, but even that wasn’t cozy. Overnight in the sleeping bag I’d thaw partway. Then next morning, I’d undertake once more the rigors of Arctic dressing: the underlayers, middle layers, overlayers, outer shell. Smart, sweat-wicking fabrics, likely smarter than me. Despite my high-IQ fashionwear, however, I was cold all day long. Then return to the sleeping bag, another partial thaw.
At temperatures such as these, everything freezes: anything mechanical, your skin. Your spit freezes before it hits the ground. Each day, we did battle against it, inching our way across miles of frozen sea. Some days, the sky was clear and cloudless. You could see forever. Other days, the sky was white, the air was white, the ground was white. Then we traveled within a tight circle of limited visibility. Whatever lay beyond that circle’s boundary, it might as well not exist. Those days, my thoughts scurried untethered in a widening radius, trying to grasp the reality of my present condition. No roads, no houses, no people, no animals. No life except the four of us and six dogs. If anything were to go wrong during this trip, it would be up to us—and no one else besides us—to fix it.
In this way, nine days passed without incident. I settled into a routine that was tolerable if not pleasant, largely focused on pushing aside the exhaustion, gnawing cold, and sore feet. I’d think I’d reached a state of utter indifference when I’d stop in my tracks, suddenly, surprising even myself. Astounded at the glory of this frigid landscape that wasn’t land. Ice like you’ve never imagined, so blue and perfect, towering overhead, in the shape of a mountain, a tidal wave struck by a curse and flash-frozen in the moment, too impossible to exist. Then I’d put my weight back into the harness, keep going. I thought it would be another fifty-one days of the same, but no such luck, because long before that everything began to go wrong.
Each long day as I skied, my mind wandered in circles. Often it settled on Tobias, how ostensibly I’d come here to find him though I was not an investigator, I knew nothing of cold weather adventuring. Still, I’d given it the good old college try. I’d arrived to Resolute Bay two full days in advance of the team meet, hoping to inquire among the locals. Unfortunately, they’d been no more forthcoming than they’d been with Evelyn. They’d made it clear I should mind my own business; the Arctic was a dangerous place. I didn’t want to get on anyone’s bad side, so after my first day of “investigation,” I retreated to my room.
Tobias hadn’t gone missing here anyway, but three hundred-sixty-four miles to the north, a mere six miles from the Pole. It was clear there was nothing more to learn there for the likes of me. I must as well just wait.
Which I did. I focused on the effort required here for the most basic tasks, not freezing. I wore a balaclava with a built-in, polyurethane ventilator over the nose and mouth. I looked like that bounty hunter from Star Wars. My efforts to speak through it were equally incomprehensible.
On the morning ten days in, I emerged from the tent I shared with the two other men. There were three of us in there: me (Clark Sauvage), another tourist (Gerald O’Reilly), and our guide/musher (Charlie Stevens). The lone woman, Paula Applebaum (tourist number three), had the luxury of her own tent. She was inside it, still. Gerald was inside also, still eating breakfast. Charlie was out, however, standing at the dog area, and despite all the layers of down and Gore-Tex, I sensed the stiffness in his posture. I walked over to join him. He pointed to an empty dog harness in the snow. It was undamaged and tethered to the stake. There was no sign of the dog.
It was strange, man’s best friend and all, ditching us for the wide white (foodless) expanse. Charlie appeared utterly baffled.
“Did you hear anything last night?” he asked.
These dogs went batshit for just a snowflake.
“No,” I said.
But he might as well as not ask. I was so tired at the end of each day, once I was in the sleeping bag, a banshee could scream in my ear. I wouldn’t hear that, either. Charlie, on the other hand, was attuned to their every need, and it was strange he hadn’t noticed anything himself. As for the absence, I wasn’t sure how serious it was. Five healthy-looking dogs remained.
“Has something like this happened before?” I asked.
“Not to me, personally,” said Charlie. “But it’s not unheard of, for a dog to run off. The harnesses aren’t escape proof. These dogs were born in the area; they’re used to it. They can wander a hundred miles or more.” He spit, a hard frozen missile. “It doesn’t happen often, though. If they don’t get to a settlement they’ll die. They know it.”
I looked at the ground. It was covered with fresh snow. No tracks.
“Can we keep going?” I asked.
“Yes, we keep going.”
The one time we spent as a group and inside was at evening dinner. Then all four of us crowded into the men’s three-person tent. Charlie would review the day’s progress, the next day’s itinerary. After that, the meal became reminiscent of life in the real world. It was a chance to feel vaguely normal again, to strip down to just the underlayer and see each other as humans and not wandering spacesuits.
Paula was the least forthcoming in the group. She disclosed little about herself, replied to questions with curt replies. Gerald was the opposite. He filled the space left by Laura and then some, as he recounted his adventures spelunking, the weird parallels with Arctic travel. Animals all white in the snow drifts, animals all white in the sunless caverns deep underground. The white cave salamander with a white, eyeless face, translucent white skin. Long ago, people mistook it for a baby dragon. Then Gerald had turned forty and decided it was time to see the top side of the planet. Charlie had been born to extreme-sport enthusiast parents. He’d spent years as a National Geographic explorer. A few years ago, he’d retired to guiding. It paid better, was less stressful, he liked dog sledding.
Under the circumstances, it was tough getting time alone and inside with just one other person. Five days in, however, I’d waylaid Charlie before he left the tent. I’d hoped that, as a guide for the same tour firm, he’d have some insider information regarding Tobias. But it turned out Charlie had worked for a different group that year. He had no wisdom to share and ascribed to the generally accepted opinion that Tobias was long-frozen. At the base of a pressure ridge, in the sea. In the frozen shit of a once-hungry polar bear.
“I thought polar bears stayed farther south,” I said.
“They do,” said Charlie. “Usually. But why all the questions? You writing a story or something?”
“No, it’s not that.” I needed to clarify right now I was not an undercover reporter. Such persons were not welcome. “I’m friends with Tobias’ fiancée.”
Charlie looked me over with renewed interest.
“That’s the reason you’re out here, then? Because it’s not that you like it.”
At the dinner roundtable, I’d made some bullshit assertion regarding a bucket list.
“That’s why I’m out here.”
“Well,” he said, “not to be negative or anything, but you’re never going to find him.” He shrugged. “You might as well start enjoying the trip.”
Despite my efforts to maintain a positive outlook regarding Tobias, my chances of success seemed to dwindle all the time. Charlie was right. One more motionless white lump on the ground would pass unnoticed. And that one effort at investigation didn’t work out in my favor either. I’d assumed Charlie and I spoke in confidence, but it was no time at all before everyone knew I’d joined this expedition solely in an effort to find and retrieve my friend’s lost fiancé. Not only that, but ideally to retrieve him alive. For this friend, I’d sacrificed two months’ wages, a large cash payment, the comforts of home, and potentially (these things happen), my life. There circulated among the team members some question regarding my degree of motivation, to find said fiancé, especially to find him alive and kicking. But, said Charlie, were such a marvel to befall, it need not ruin things between me and the lady. It would be easy enough to grab that rifle (it was loaded and ready), always in the same place (Charlie’s sled). If Tobias were to die of a bullet to the head, just when rescue was finally (improbably) at hand, well, that would be tragic. But this was the Arctic after all. Shit happened. Charlie’s mouth turned up in a crooked grin. I wasn’t sure how much he was joking.
“You can shoot, can’t you?” he asked.
As a matter of fact, I could not. I wondered if I should admit the shortcoming or try to bluff. If Charlie were to call me out—
“I can shoot,” said Paula.
All three of us turned to look at her. This was the first time she’d volunteered anything about herself except that she didn’t like peanut butter.
“I do biathlons,” she said. “Cross-country skiing and shooting. I was silver medalist in the World Cup last year in Sweden.”
“Oi,” said Gerald, “The Violet One speaks.”
That had been his name for her because she wore purple boots, a purple outer shell. She kept to herself like a shrinking—
I’d never had the feeling she liked it. Now I began laughing.
“There you go,” I said, “not so shrinking after all.”
By twenty days in, we’d reached the sea ice, and this was a whole different animal from the ice shelf that had been fixed, stable (relatively speaking). We walked now upon the open waters. Thirteen thousand feet of ocean below jostled and thrashed. The ice sheets strained, creaked. They splintered like from an invisible lightning strike, breaking apart to form long jagged fissures ( called leads), exposing the sea below that was heavy, strong, cold and furious. Given half a chance, it would possess you, surge down your gullet, clogging your lungs with icy death. At no other point on the planet’s surface could man walk upon the ocean, but the man was a fool.
At other times, the ice sheets didn’t split, but collided into each other. With the force of tons, thousands of tons for all I knew, they rammed together, breaking, jutting high into the air at the lines of intersection, forming small mountain ranges (pressure ridges), twenty feet tall, great peaks of crushed ice. These ridges could stretch for miles with no way around. Then we stopped to unpack the heavy axes. I’d hack until I thought my arms would fall off.
At the culmination of each days’ travel, I thought I’d fall before I could sit and was increasingly slow to emerge from my sweet down cocoon. On the morning of day twenty, I was not surprised that everyone had left the tent already but me. I was surprised, however, that outside everyone cluttered at the dog area. I approached with trepidation and made my way through to the front of the group. There in the snow was another dog harness, still tethered, no dog.
“It must have happened before three,” said Paula.
Charlie glanced up. He looked distraught.
“What must have happened?” he asked.
“The dog, it must have gone missing before three.”
“She’s just a regular Sherlock Holmes,” said Gerald, “but girl, I don’t follow you.”
“The storm last night, it woke me up.”
I’d slept right through it.
“It finally died down again at three,” she continued.
I’d missed that, too, but I didn’t miss what she was getting it.
“There are no tracks,” I said. “If the dog had left after the storm ended, the snow would be disturbed.”
The only disturbance was where Charlie had dug the harness free. Gerald blinked.
“Left,” he said, mulling over the word. “But why would it leave?”
That was the million dollar question.
“He missed his buddy?” offered Laura.
She offered weakly.
I turned my attention to the remaining dogs. They didn’t appear anxious or fearful. They were big dogs, lean, seemingly tireless. Their sled carried a lot of supplies.
“How much can one dog pull?” I asked.
“Easily its own weight,” said Charlie. “More if it has to. Less easy.”
“OK, so we have four dogs left—”
I stopped to think.
They’d started the trip with three hundred-fifty pounds. Our supplies were meant to last sixty-two days. To that end, they were rationed carefully. After nineteen full days had passed, approximately two hundred-sixty pounds would remain, divided by four.
“Sixty-five pounds per dog,” I concluded, “as of now.”
Everyone was impressed. Gerald turned to Charlie.
“Is that right?” he asked.
“It is,” said Charlie. “Almost exactly.”
“Do the dogs weigh sixty-five pounds?” asked Paula.
“No,” said Charlie, “but they almost do.”
Whatever supplies the dogs couldn’t pull would come to us. The one bright spot in my life was that each day our sleds weighed less than the day before.
To be honest, that should be the least of my worries. And why would the dogs leave?
“We don’t have to repack the supplies,” said Charlie.
The word he left unspoken: yet.
When that first dog went missing, it was weird, but this was the Arctic after all. Shit happened. It saw something, dreamed something, a white polar squirrel. Off it went into the great white nothing. The probability of such an event was low but non-zero. But the chances of two independent events is not the sum but the product, the product being considerably smaller. In this case, the degree of independence was questionable, but the pattern remained, and it was certainly non-random.
The likelihood that a third dog would go missing, a fourth, felt increasingly plausible.
Charlie took the desertions particularly hard. There was a powerful bond between them. Also, these dogs were his livelihood. They must be expensive and/or require years of training. Whatever else happened between now and our journey’s end, assuming I survived, my old life would be waiting for me. For Charlie, best case scenario he’d be out two dogs.
That night Charlie double harnessed them, double tied them, to each other, to a central stake driven hard into the ice.
I should clarify that, when I talk about night here, it’s not in any conventional sense of the word. Our first night on the ice, we’d had a whopping four hours of darkness. As of four days later, we’d had none. The endless light was its own sort of torture. I lost all sense of time as we rose and fell in an endless cycle. We told ourselves we traveled northward, we progressed. In reality, we might march in place, deceived by ennui and a sliding background pulled along beside us.
In my mind, I regressed. I was a nothing like the white all around me.
Three days later, the third dog went missing. Another night of wind and storm, but by morning the snow was pristine. It sparkled in an affectation of innocence. In my head, I calculated the remaining burden versus the number of dogs.
“We have to re-pack,” said Charlie.
He wanted their load reduced to sixty pounds per, i.e. fifty pounds total from them to us. This transfer weight divided by four was not an undue burden, nothing like the irrefutable supposition that more was still to come.
The polar bear rarely travels above 82oN. We were at 86oN when dog three went missing. Each degree of latitude corresponds to a surface distance of sixty-nine miles. Thus, an additional four degrees translates to two hundred seventy-six miles. Additionally, a polar bear attack would incite pandemonium among the dogs.
At evening dinner, a palpable sense of anxiety filled the crowded tent space.
“Your friend’s fiancé,” said Gerald, “he went missing when?”
All eyes turned to me.
Of course, I’d been thinking along similar lines, more and more, turning the few facts in my possession inside out and upside down, shaking them vigorously. But there seemed more differences than similarities. No dogs had gone missing on that trip, the human travelers hadn’t noticed anything strange.
“It happened two years ago,” I said, “but I wasn’t there.”
“But you were affiliated,” said Gerald.
There was an uncomfortable silence. I shifted my position.
“That might be true,” said Paula, “but he still wasn’t there.”
“Look,” said Charlie, “no one knows what happened back then. Anything we imagine here would be pure speculation.”
“No one knows what’s happening now, either,” said Gerald, “and it’s a hell of a coincidence.”
“It wasn’t me,” I said.
“It was a coincidence,” said Charlie, “just like you said just now, Gerald. Also it’s done, all of it. From now on, I sleep outside with the dogs. They won’t go missing anymore.”
“Outside without the tent?” I asked. “You can do that?”
“It’s possible,” said Paula.
“And you think that will stop whatever it is?” asked Gerald.
“I’ll have the rifle.”
“You’ll be asleep.”
“The dogs will bark.”
“They haven’t so far.”
The dogs’ silence was a cause for much speculation.
“They will if I’m out there with them,” said Charlie. He turned from Gerald. “Paula, there will be more space with me gone. From now on, you should sleep in here with the others. I’ll leave the satellite phone in case anything goes wrong.” He paused. “Nothing will go wrong.”
The satellite phone (in retrospect we should have brought more than one) was our one and only connection with the outside world. We shared it among us for short calls home. It had Internet. At the North Pole we’d use it to call Resolute Bay. A plane would come soon afterward. Weather permitting.
“In fact, we could call earlier, though,” said Gerald. “Right? For an early extraction.”
Paula swiveled to look at him. I’d also caught the implication in his voice: more like imminent extraction.
“You want to give up?” she said.
Gerald winced. Charlie took a deep breath.
“Gerald, how much did you pay for this trip?”
He’d paid twenty-three thousand dollars, not including airfare, hotel, equipment, food, two months lost wages. All of us had. Like me, he’d likely spent months training, running until he vomited.
These last twenty-four days I’d inched, hacked, crawled my way, torturously, across one hundred-fifty miles of hell frozen over.
“If you leave,” said Paula, “we all leave.”
What would I say to Evelyn? Back home, she hung on my every message, praying for good news.
No way, dogs missing or not, I’d be damned if I’d come this far for nothing. Which is exactly what it would be if Gerald made the call. Our contract stipulated we traveled, or returned, only as a group.
“If we want to call the plane,” said Charlie, slowly, “we can do that. Given the weather, it could probably be here in the morning. But we’d need to call right now because after that, it gets bad.” He paused. “So how about it, should we vote?”
Gerald looked at each of us in turn. He knew he was outnumbered.
“No,” he said. “We don’t need to vote.” He smiled, ruefully. “Go team.”
And for a while after that, it really did seem done, whatever it was. That night passed without incident. The next few days/nights were various degrees of stormy weather (conditions during which the dogs had historically one missing), but each morning all four greeted us with wags and yapping. We wanted so badly to believe we were in the clear, it was easy to convince ourselves that before we’d overreacted. That first dog likely spied something out there on the ice. It wriggled free and bounded away. These were dogs, after all, born to chase. They were also pack animals. Soon another dog missed his buddy, took off to find him. Then two dogs were gone, a third dog got lonely, too. If anything, those three dogs roaming the ice were missing the dogs still here, also the hot breakfast and dinner Charlie prepared for them, each day, with love. It was only a matter of time before we woke in the morning, all six dogs returned and happy. Everything back to normal.
After three days of wind and blowing snow, we had three of days calm, cloudless skies. All day, all night, the sun beat down upon us, no mercy, so bright it was blinding without goggles. The snow glistened like the most incredible treasure, the ice in the pressure ridges was compacted so hard, it reflected nothing but blue light, the most pure blue I’d ever seen. Occasionally, I’d remove my goggles for a few minutes to take it in.
Each night, Charlie slept outside with the dogs. I didn’t know how he did it. There was no way I could lie there, so small and exposed and close my eyes.
No dogs went missing.
Another four days we traveled. Three clear, one cloudy. Another seventeen days. No more incidents, and for sure it had been a fluke, those other those dogs vanishing like they had because now everything was fine.
Another twenty-six days in, I was far away in sleep land when Paula shook me awake, which I didn’t appreciate.
“Listen!” she hissed.
I sat up, slowly, still drowsy. And then I heard it, too, from outside the tent a voice, Gerald’s voice, yelling like a madman. Paula and I crept to the tent entrance, Paula first. She stood up, and Gerald turned to her, pointing into the distance with a quivering arm.
“Tails!” he exclaimed. “A thousand tails!”
I followed the direction of his point with my eyes. I saw nothing. Neither did Paula.
“A thousand what?” she said.
“Tails! It had a thousand tails!”
He shivered violently. He was hysterical. Deranged?
I stood up now, too, and laid my hand on his shoulder.
“Ger—” I started.
He spun round, I was slightly behind him, and launched his fist into my gut, knocking me to the ground. But I had my hand on his shoulder. I gripped harder as I fell, pulling him down with me. At that same time, Paula began yelling, too, but stopped when she saw us. Who knows what would have happened next, but Gerald met my eyes. He looked at me like he’d expected someone else, something else, then he broke free and took off toward the sleds. I stumbled back to my feet, coughing. The world turned circles around me, and that must be the reason why, I thought, when I looked at the dog area, everything was wrong. I closed my eyes, took a long painful breath in, opened them again. Nothing had changed: the dog area had no dogs.
I stared, dumbfounded, at the scene before me. The stakes were there, the harnesses, the food dishes. Charlie was there, too, sleeping like there’d been no dognapping, no yelling, no scuffling. No, I realized soon after, he was not actually sleeping. A thin trickle of blood was frozen against his scalp. Paula and I unstrapped him and carried him back to the tent. In good news, he revived soon afterward. He was confused, though, and had no recollection of what had happened. That left Gerald as the only witness. He’d since returned to the tent as well, but no matter what we asked, he just went on about the tails.
“OK,” I said, “so tell me about the tails. What did they look like?”
“They were white.”
Finally, an actual reply.
“That’s good. They were white. What else?”
His eyes roamed in all directions. He covered his face with his hands and turned into the tent wall and whispered. The tails were furry, he said, each maybe a foot long, floppy. They covered the surface of a large snow mound that slid over the ground.
He stopped, took a breath.
The mound slid, he said, traveled, with clear intention. As if the snow itself had come alive, risen to acquire form and sentience, a taste for flesh, a snow monster.
Charlie stared at Gerald like he’d gone crazy, and maybe he had.
“OK, that’s it,” said Charlie. “It’s time to call the plane.” His voice trembled. “Who has the phone?”
“It’s on the dog sled,” said Paula.
“It shouldn’t be on the sled, why is it there?”
“We were tired last night. We forgot to bring it inside.”
“OK, well no matter. Someone can get it.”
“It’s just that,” said Paula, “it’s not just the dogs that are gone. It’s their sled, too.”
There’d been no snow during the night, and the area was littered with tracks of dogs arriving at camp, dogs sleeping at camp. Nothing from dogs leaving camp, so how’d they do that? The only “track” (if you could call it that) was a wide path in the snow, about four feet across, like something had been dragged over the surface. Soon it vanished altogether over a bare section of ice.
Charlie, Paula, and I stood there, baffled at the trail’s end.
“What now?” asked Paula.
Charlie rubbed his forehead. I wondered how badly it hurt.
“Well,” he said, “you know, this was meant to be a one-way trip.”
A sixty-day trip, we were fifty days in. To reverse course and return to Ward Hunt Island would mean another fifty days.
“We have to keep going,” he said.
“And then what?” asked Paula. “We just stay there?”
“Resolute Bay is expecting our call on the thirtieth,” said Charlie. “They’ll wait another two days. If we don’t call by the third day, they’ll come looking for us. We have two extra days of food, or we did. Until the sled went missing.”
We had enough, that’s what I told myself as we packed up for travel. I tried to forget the dogs were gone, that Charlie had been bludgeoned and Gerald had mistaken me for a snow monster. Instead, I thought back to my old life with sofas and heating. Increasingly, however, these memories felt like a fiction I’d imagined, the delirium of a dying man.
As for Gerald, he did not relent one bit regarding his account of that morning. His eyes never stopped wandering in wide circles. He insisted we travel single file with him in the last position. Charlie refused to give him the rifle.
The rifle stayed outdoors at all times. If it warmed inside the tent, all that moisture frozen inside would thaw, then refreeze and possibly jam the mechanism. Nights, all four of us crowded into the tent without it. Hunger gnawed at my stomach. Charlie had cut our rations because of the lost supplies, but my daily output was massive. At the end of the second night, I felt dizzy.
The next morning, Gerald decided he needed to piss. We had bottles for that, but since Paula had joined us, he refused to use them. Instead, he crawled over Charlie, then me. I cussed him out for bothering me for no reason, then went back to sleep. When I woke again, he was still gone. I woke Paula and Charlie.
“What the fuck?” he said.
He blinked in the light. I felt badly for waking him. He didn’t look well. Aside from a bruise and some sore muscles, I’d been none the worse from Gerald’s fist. But Charlie had headaches nonstop. He took Tylenol, a lot of it, while assuring us he’d be recovered in no time. But he’d been tripping when there was nothing to trip over, forgetting things. Now the three of us stared at that empty sleeping bag like if we did that long enough, time would go backward. Of course it didn’t, so we dressed and left the tent. It was silence like you’ve never known out there, when there were no more dogs. There was the ice, it was never entirely still, but there were no sounds of life. I’d never realized how much the dogs’ bright eyes and endless yapping had contributed to a sense of normalcy.
We found Gerald’s boot prints in the snow, leading away from camp, then replaced by that path dragged in the snow, then lost on the bare ice.
There is no fear more primal than that of being hunted. It’s primitive, awesome in its simplicity. The sum of your existence condensed into a binary of contingencies.
As we stood looking in all directions, Paula shivered. I suspected not just from the cold.
“None of the dogs have come back,” said Charlie, slowly. “There’s no reason to think Gerald will, either. We’ll split his remaining supplies between the three of us and keep going.”
We looked at each other now. At the start of the trip, we’d each signed a document affirming that, if any of us could reasonably be presumed dead, and it was necessary to keep moving, the others would continue. We waived liability. Gerald had forgiven us already, at least on paper. The question was, could we forgive ourselves for accepting his forgiveness.
In the end, we decided to leave the sled, stake it to the ice so it couldn’t wander. We left some supplies, also. There’d been some disagreement on this last issue. If Gerald were to return (which he wouldn’t), he would need all his supplies to have any chance of reaching the Pole. If we didn’t take his supplies for ourselves, we faced ten more days of hunger, progressive weakness. Logic dictated there were only two reasonable options: take all the supplies or leave all the supplies. Our eventual compromise was a loss for everyone, but it assuaged our sense of guilt.
That night, for the first time in three days, I ate to satiety. I had no pleasure, though, no sense of relief because this was food meant for another. I was stealing life, eating another man.
I was not eating another man.
My thoughts were increasingly unhinged.
I glanced to Charlie. He kept dropping his fork, slurring his words. Often, he seemed unaware of these lapses. Other times, he looked up at us afterward, fear in his eyes. The next morning, he didn’t wake. We yelled at him, shook him, which was not the best approach for a person with a head injury, but we had seven more days of travel, another two days waiting for the plane. More than anything, Charlie had to keep moving, but nothing helped. I sat back onto my sleeping bag.
“We have some time,” I said. “We have enough food. The plane won’t come until the second.”
“Weather permitting,” said Paula.
How I’d grown to hate those two words. It was unbelievable how they could represent the difference between living and dying.
“Right,” I said, “so we can afford to wait a day.”
Paula said nothing, which I took to be her acquiescence, and what were her thoughts right now? I knew nothing about this woman except she did biathlons, she disliked peanut butter, for some reason she’d signed on for a trip to the North Pole. No, one more thing, she liked David Sedaris. She carried his essay collections in her backpack, and I respected this about her, her appreciation for the sardonic. At this moment, she and I were the only two people left in the world. I craved her opinion.
“We could wait one day,” she said, finally. “We could use the rest.”
That day we spent within the confines of the small tent space (no one had gone missing from inside the tent) where my fear felt so naked and large, it pressed against the both of us, inappropriately. We sat raw, aching vigil with Charlie, his own mind far away. His body that was unconscious, unmoving but still breathing. Not dead. Not reasonably presumable to be dead. Not yet.
He was unchanged the next morning. Eight days remained before the plane would come (weather permitting). Without water, a person could survive three days, maybe four. I wasn’t sure. We emptied Charlie’s sled and Paula’s and loaded all the supplies onto mine. We loaded Charlie onto Paula’s sled and abandoned his.
That day we made slow progress, ending four miles short of our ideal travel goal. We set up the tent for the night, and I wanted to go straight to sleep, not even bother to eat first.
Paula leaned against the inside tent wall.
“What do you think we should do,” she said. “When he—”
She stopped and turned her head away.
“When he’s gone,” I said.
Like me, she was beyond exhausted. Charlie was heavy. In addition to his physical weight was the intangible, but significant, additional burden that came from pulling a sled with a dead person/soon-to-be dead person, when every time you looked at him you saw yourself.
“If you’re too tired,” I said, “I’ll pull him instead.”
I thought that, at this point, he must weigh less than the supplies. Whatever he weighed, we couldn’t leave him outside, breathing or not. I was about to force myself outside again when all hell broke loose.
Paula saw it first, through the tent wall, a shadow that shouldn’t be there. She pointed and I saw it, too. Then she was out like a shot, so fast it took me a moment to catch up. Moments later, I burst from the tent, then stopped dead at the vision before me.
A mound of snow, a hump exactly as Gerald had described it, studded with countless white furry tails slid over the ground. It pulled Gerald’s sled behind it, now piled with something brown and furry. It was headed for Charlie, no doubt, and however horrifying it was—this monster—I couldn’t let it reach him, helpless as he was. I ran toward it, yelling for it to get away. Instantly, it dropped the sled, flattened out against the ground, and the next thing I knew it was on me. Not snow or ice or a creature with an oversized mouth and biting teeth, but a man. With hard skin, hard muscles, incredible strength. He hugged me with his arms and legs, strong like steel cables, squeezing me so tight my ribs felt like they’d snap, I couldn’t draw breath. I stumbled, then jerked at an ear-splitting bang. My attacker released me. I fell to the ground, panting for air. My vision, black around the edges, gradually cleared.
I looked up to see Paula, standing over us, the rifle still in her arms. She was shaking all over.
“What the fuck,” she said. “He’s wearing Gerald’s clothes.”
My ears rang. Paula’s voice sounded far away. I turned back to my attacker, who lay on the ice beside me. He was shot through the side, injured but not dead. A halo of warm scarlet expanded outward from beneath him as I looked upon his face. His was a face I’d looked upon many times before, with fondness and affection, now haggard, distorted into an animal-like grimace, barely recognizable.
“Tobias,” I said.
He opened his eyes at my voice, but his expression was wild.
“Tobias, do you remember me?”
I’d moved away from him, just now, but I slid nearer again. I’d known this man for years. I’d had dinners with him, afternoons in the sun with him, with and without Evelyn, her friends and mine. He’d been getting a PhD in geology. Then he’d gone missing, now miraculously survived two long years alone in this godforsaken hellscape.
“Tobias,” I said, “what happened to you?”
Rather than speaking, he growled low in his throat.
“It’s me, Tobias, Clark Sauvage.”
He growled louder. He must have lived like an animal, but even then, how was it possible? What did he eat?
Paula knocked him with her boot.
“The dogs,” she said. It was the first time she’d spoken. Tobias rolled his eyes to look at her. “Why didn’t they ever bark?”
I thought he’d just growl again, but for a moment his eyes seemed to clear.
“I used the super arm.”
His voice was hoarse and breathy. He grinned. He must have been three quarters dead by then, multiple broken ribs, a bullet through the lung. Even with his clothes on, his side visibly expanded and contracted with each breath. But he reached out fast as lightning. His fingers dug convulsively into the fabric of my coat, hauling himself to a sitting position. With his free hand, he plunged a knife into my right arm, then pulled his face near to me and gasped, he spit blood.
“Use it wisely.”
Paula cudgeled him with the rifle butt. I sprang back. She dropped the rifle and sat down hard.
“Thank you,” I said, when I could speak again.
For once, I was glad about the overlayer and middle layer and underlayer. They’d insulated me from the worst of the knife attack. The puncture was not deep or wide. The knife itself was interesting. The hilt was carved from bone and elaborately detailed. It looked old, maybe it had archaeological value. Under different circumstances, I might have kept it as a souvenir. Now, I discarded it into the snow.
Paula and I made an examination of the “snow monster.” It turned out to be two polar bear skins sewn together with thick sinews. Covering the outer surface were countless white furry tails.
“Arctic fox tails,” said Paula. “He sewed them on.”
Tobias had covered himself with the pelts, then traveled on his hands and knees. Thus the illusion of a moving snow mound.
“The foxes would be hard enough,” said Paula, “but how did he kill the polar bears? With that tiny knife?”
With the super arm. I suspected that would have been his reply. It was nonsense, of course, but how else—
We searched his sled. It was piled with dog carcasses, four of them. No satellite phone.
“He must have been too far gone to recognize it,” said Paula. “He just wanted food. Can you imagine? Two years in this wasteland, no human contact. Of course he lost his mind.”
As to how he’d ended up alone in the first place, we remained none the wiser. The usual (mundane) suspects remained: fallen through a lead, tripped on the ice and landed unconscious, soon covered by blowing snow. This place ate people for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No reason to think it didn’t eat Tobias, too.
“We aren’t the only people, though,” I said, “crossing the ice since he went missing. Why didn’t he attack them, too?”
“Maybe in some confused recess of his mind, he recognized you after all.” She paused. “What will you tell the fiancée?”
Not only her, but Charlie’s family, Gerald’s, and was I responsible for their deaths? By affiliation? One thing I knew for sure, Evelyn would never want to see what Tobias had become. I wished I hadn’t, either. I’d remember his face in my nightmares.
“We say we found him at the base of a pressure ridge,” I said. “He’d been dead a long time already. We tried, but couldn’t free him. It would have destabilized the ice sheet.” I thought a moment. “For Gerald, we can say he fell through. We couldn’t reach him in time. As for Charlie …”
I’d forgotten about Charlie during the turmoil. Now I looked at him, still bound to the sled, no change in his position. In all likelihood, he was passed, too. It was too much for me, all this death. I sat down on the ice and closed my eyes.
“It’s OK,” said Paula, “we still have time.”
It had been a long day already when the attack happened. With all that shock in my system, I’d thought I’d never sleep that night. I kept shaking all over. Paula was in a similar condition. We prepared dinner sloppily and in silence, undressed to the underlayer in silence, now just two of us and a dead man. We weren’t lovers, it was hard to say we were even friends, but that night we pulled our sleeping bags close together.
The next morning I woke hot with fever. My arm throbbed, my body ached. We had no IV, no means to provide Charlie vital liquid sustenance. We did, however, have Penicillin among his stash of emergency supplies. I’d taken a dose last night, just to be sure. I wished now I’d taken more, but there’d been no reason to think I’d be this sick from a minor stab wound. All the same, I was confident the drugs would kick in. They just needed time. Time, however, was not on our side. Six days remained until the purported extraction date. Thirty-one miles separated us from the extraction site. Our best travel speed was six and a quarter miles a day.
We were far from our best, but we’d have to match that pace if we hoped to catch the plane. I swallowed more antibiotics. I’d also found a bottle of Percocet, I swallowed two of those, too, plus some Tylenol for the fever. A half hour later, I felt better than I had in weeks. My arm stopped hurting, I was neither hot nor cold, the snowflakes sparkled like diamonds in air, I wanted to catch them.
Paula grabbed me by the arm. I almost tripped as she pulled me along with her.
“Shit,” I said. Even the Percocet hadn’t dulled the pain of that direct contact. “Wrong arm.”
“You were fading,” said Paula.
I wasn’t the only one. During those intervals when I emerged from the drug fog and hadn’t restocked, I was concerned by how pale she was. Her face was set in grim determination, the rifle slung over her shoulder. Like me, she frequently stumbled, but she made good time all the same. When I slowed she dragged me with her, though she pulled the supplies sled, too. I pulled Charlie. He was the more expendable load.
At night I took more Percocet, more Tylenol, more antibiotics, but I was sicker than ever. In the tent, I sat gazing at the label. My vision blurred.
“You think this is really Penicillin?” I asked.
The pills were round, white. For all I knew, they were nasal decongestants.
“That’s what the bottle says,” said Paula.
“Then it’s shit medicine.”
She cracked a weak smile.
“You can tell them that,” she said, “when you’re home again.”
When. It was an optimistic assessment.
“Paula, you don’t have to bullshit me.”
“I’m not bullshitting you,” she said, quietly.
When she shook me awake the next morning, I felt contiguous with the sleeping bag, that felt contiguous with the sea ice, the earth’s core. I weighed a thousand pounds.
“Get up,” she said, “we have twenty-five miles.”
Paula had found caffeine pills, also a syringe loaded with adrenaline (amazingly not frozen), and I wondered if I should use that, too. In the end, I downed just the caffeine, plus the Penicillin (alleged), the Tylenol, the Percocet. Twenty minutes later, I could stand again. I followed in Paula’s ski tracks as I shivered, as inside my mind I traveled a roller coaster, up and down, bright colors, ear-splitting screeching, metal on metal. I stopped and pressed my gloved hands to the balaclava covering my head and ears.
Paula grabbed me by the arm and pulled me with her.
“Fuck!” I yelled into the great wide nothing.
I slept that night, or I didn’t. It was all the same to me. I walked while dreaming, dreamed of walking, but maybe the Penicillin was real after all because at some point I felt better. Not by much, but the pandemonium in my brain grew milder, the outside world less gossamer. As I popped more Tylenol and narcotics and caffeine, it occurred to me I might die of liver failure instead of sepsis and hypothermia, but I must travel another twelve miles to the extraction point, and this was the only way I’d get there. I focused on the basics: right foot, left foot. My right arm hung uselessly at my side, which was a serious handicap for skiing, but recently it felt less on fire.
When we reached the North Pole, I had no idea what day it was, what time. The sun shone spiteful as ever, but I was gratified beyond words that when we made camp I could lie down and keep lying down. I helped Paula as much as I could, but I was slow. Paula was slow, too, so tired but never complaining. She’d been taking the caffeine pills also. Maybe she should get the adrenaline. My gift to her.
When the tent was up, I just lay on top of my sleeping bag, too tired to undress and get inside it. Paula had stayed on the ice. When she returned, she slumped down beside me.
“I walked the area,” she said
Her voice was hoarse, quiet. She’d been coughing a lot.
“Are you awake?” she asked.
With tremendous effort, I pushed myself to a seated position, leaning with my back against the inside tent wall.
“Yes,” I said.
“So I looked around, and I didn’t see any plane tracks.”
I said nothing.
The day was clear and snowless. Any recent plane tracks should still be visible.
“I get it, the plane hasn’t come and gone already,” I said. “Should it have? What day is it?”
I’d assumed we’d gotten here in time because the alternative was too horrible to consider, but now I panicked, because was it possible we were too late after all?
“It’s June second,” said Paula.
I needed a moment to digest her answer. The gears in my brain turned slowly. The original target date had been May thirtieth. Resolute Bay would wait another two days. If no one called, they’d send a plane on or after—
June second. Today.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“Nine fifteen,” she said, “in the morning.”
No, the plane should not have come already. Paula must have searched just as a precaution. In fact, we had all the time in the world. There was no doubt in my mind. The plane could be en route at this very moment. I glanced upward, like I could see through the tent wall to the blue sky above, to our rescue plane, descending like an angel from heaven. It would open its arms and we’d climb inside, safe and warm as it carried us far, far away. Amazing and fantastic.
“Paula,” I said.
“I think you’re a miracle.”
I slept for a very long time. I slept like the dead. And when I woke again, I was better. The fever was mostly gone. I tried moving the fingers of my right hand, anything related to my right arm at all, but still nothing happened. I didn’t understand that I’d lost all function. In fact, there’d been no reason for me get sick at all. But it didn’t matter. We’d be out of here, soon. I’d go to the hospital and they’d fix me.
Were we out of here yet?
I closed my eyes, I opened them again. I was in the tent, alone. I crawled outside. Paula sat there at the entrance, searching the sky with her eyes, but she turned at my arrival.
“Should we eat?” she asked.
I wasn’t sure how much I’d eaten the last few days. The drug cocktail and a sort of mindless willpower had kept me going. I suspected that once inside the tent each night, I’d gone straight to sleep. Now I could barely stand. Just sitting was difficult, I had to lean against the inner tent wall. My plate felt so heavy. Every part of me hurt, every muscle, joint, cell. I felt so dried out, it was hard to swallow. I glanced to Paula. She ate slowly, and once more I considered how little I knew about her, in the conventional sense, not even her job. In the sense that together we’d endured sixty-two days in the Arctic Circle, shared this tent between us and a dying man, left another man to die (were he not dead already), known the otherwise unknowable terror of the hunted. In the sense that she’d shot a man to save my life, and now she’d carry that burden with her always, the killing. I’d carry it with me, always. In that sense, I couldn’t imagine being so intimately conjoined to any other person, woman or man, lover or friend.
She’d been beautiful, I remembered, at the start of trip. Not done up with makeup, but naturally beautiful, vital. She was nearly as tall as me with close-cropped blonde hair and wide, grey eyes. I’d given her only a passing glance then, so focused on my supposed investigator role, then the hardships, the sheer effort of life on the ice.
She was beautiful now, though her cheeks were burned from frostbite, her lips were cracked and blistered. She was weak, but deep inside the vitality remained.
“Paula,” I spoke into the empty space between us. “When we’re out of here, you think we could look each other up sometime?”
She blinked, but I never had her reply because at that moment both of us startled at the unmistakable drone sound of an approaching aircraft. In an instant, I was no longer tired. My legs forgot they couldn’t support me as we rushed together from the tent, and there it was, a black mark in the sky. We jumped up and down, we waved and yelled. The mark grew larger until it resembled the plane that it was, it landed, skidding over the ice. I began running. Then the ice shifted beneath me, creaking, a boom like a canon shot and it split apart in a long jagged tear, the spaces between filling with dark hungry water. Behind me. I heard a cry, and when I looked back, I didn’t see Paula.
I should have waited for her. I’d just assumed she’d run with me, and if I hadn’t seen her just then, it was because she was catching up. But she must have waited a moment first, maybe to grab her pack. I ran back, slid onto my stomach and leaned with my upper body over the edge where moments ago the ice had been continuous, now a great gaping maw. She was down there, barely supporting herself on a small shelf of ice jutting out near the bottom. I pushed myself back to standing, ran to the tent and somehow strapped myself (one-armed) into the sled harness. I pulled one of the tent stakes free, returned to the ice edge, and rammed the stake into the ice, hooked my harness to it with a rope and carabiner, lay down and slid back to the edge. I extended my left hand down.
My voice was small against the sounds of furious sloshing water. Paula was wet from the spray, she shivered violently but reached upward. My gloved hand closed around hers, but my right arm was useless. I wanted her to take the rope. She could grab hold and climb out herself. With her free hand she grabbed for it. She almost had it when the ice split again, the area between the edge and the stake fell away. Paula fell, yanking my arm until I thought it would dislocate my shoulder. Her hand was wet. I felt it slipping from my grasp. I heard a splash, closed my eyes as frigid water sprayed my face. I was falling, too, sliding.
I caught, something caught me, by the right hand, the one not working. It had virtually no sensation, but I had to grip, whatever it was that gripping me or I’d plummet the remaining distance. I tried. I willed my hand to obey me, and then I was struck by lightning, at least that’s what it felt like. An incredible electric charge, shooting through my right arm. Suddenly it was strong. Not just strong as usual, but strong as steel, strong like with a mind of it own, gripping hard and pulling me upward, hauling me with it. I slid back over the edge and onto the surface of the ice. Two men in Arctic gear crouched near me, yelling at me, though I didn’t understand what they said. Instead, I lifted my right hand and stared at it, my whole arm. It looked—
Normal. It felt normal. I opened and closed the fingers. They obeyed, but there was nothing special about them.
The men were dragging me along the ice, farther from the edge. I looked and saw the sled with Charlie. Someone was pulling that, too but Paula—
She’d saved me, I hadn’t saved her.
For the briefest moment, my arm felt electrical again, a spark. I recalled Tobias’ last words: use it wisely. And maybe this wasn’t over after all.
*Feature image by Fran_kie (Adobe)