Taiga, Taiga, Burning Bright (story)

I’m in Alaska. It’s pretty sunny here. I have a starting shotgun, a little bit of cured meat, and the Restitution. I’m not sure what to say that would save me. Nothing, probably. I understand that and it doesn’t hurt me. Hurt has already been caused. The answer to my predicament is like an ill-fitting suit from Goodwill. That’s what I’m wearing. I forgot to mention the suit. No one will find me here; Alaska’s pretty big and wide ranging. If anyone found me, actually, I’d just die. The secret’s definitely looking, but it’s clumsy, and is nonanalytical in its thinking. I think the secret’s fixated on the lower 48.

I’ve been living above a bait n’ tackle shop near a cold river. It’s technically a studio apartment, but studio makes it sound too fancy. It’s not. It’s just a room with a kitchenette and a bathroom. And a closet. That’s where I keep the Restitution. I feed it bait. That’s my job. Not feeding the Restitution, but catching bait for the shop. It’s really no one’s business what I feed the Restitution, and anyway, no one up here knows I have it. The Restitution doesn’t mind the worms and maggots, I don’t think. Feeding is purely a bonus. It makes a lot of noise when I feed it and I assume that’s good. I work hard. I use galoshes from the store, really tall, that I use to wade in the Alaskan river. It’s freezing but I don’t feel a thing. I’m used to that. The worms and minnows are almost blue. For the maggots, I wander the fields and mountains to find corpses and then I snag the larvae before they fly into flies. I get a nickel for each piece of bait, and I can live with that.

During the short nights I watch the clear stars from my window and listen to the Restitution try to sleep, its hesitant breathing. I’m reluctant to let it out, even for a little while, from the closet. I don’t want it to get any ideas. But then I remember that prisoners get an hour of sunshine–or at least the open air–every day. So every night I turn the lights out and let the Restitution out for five minutes or so. I stand on the top of the sofa with my shotgun, aiming. I’m just trying to protect myself and the Restitution. I guess I forgot to mention that I had a shotgun. For some reason it didn’t seem important. When the Restitution’s done pawing around–it never thanks me–I unfurl the blinds and watch the night kayakers ply the Alaskan river, course over rapids, laughing, taking Alaska by the brass ring.

I don’t regret a thing. Daylight lasts pretty much forever here, although I heard from some people in line at Alaska’s convenience store that this will change, and at some point the night would take its place and last forever. That sounds bad. If ordinary, hard working people knew what I was thinking, they would think me a monster. People are more conservative up here and they move slower. They would have no idea why someone would need to steal a Restitution, in certain circumstances. They wouldn’t see it as the gray matter that it is. No! They would also root for the secret. The secret has a golden airplane that uses satellite imagery to find people like me. The secret is stuck in its ways. I’m low. I get on my hands and knees to find those pesky worms under rocks and lichen patches. Nightcrawlers are pathetic.

Is this a test, then? The slowness of my adversaries? The whole planet is the telltale heart; it throbs guilt and everyone can hear it loud and clear.

Such audibility doesn’t bother me. But there’s this bear that does. A big kodiak. It has to be the largest bear in Alaska. From fields and mountains, I can see it. It’s stalking me, kind of. Sometimes I think it’s just looking for food, the big galoot, and other times I swear it’s plotting paths on which to kill me. Maybe it thinks I’m food. That’s fine. As long as it doesn’t get any more personal. I only rarely go up to the north of Alaska to find bait, the taiga above the Arctic Circle, but after a few instances of the bear hovering semi-close to me, I decide to go. I tell myself that I want to tempt fate, but really, the real reason is that I need a break from the Restitution.

After I start walking north, the bear quits slapping salmon against a river rock and begins following me. At a discrete distance, of course. Its paws are red. I have good eyesight. I try not to look back as I walk north across Alaska, through dense forests of pine and swarms of black flies. Soon the trees get thinner and I’m above the Arctic Circle. It’s getting colder and I forgot to bring my mittens and everything. The bait potential thins. I try to dig up a few worms out of the permafrost, but it’s like they have frostbite, and they break in my hand. I accidentally drop a minnow I manage to find in a little creek and it shatters. This can’t be a sigil, can it?

After awhile I reach the Arctic Ocean, which is frozen over, with only a few places where I can see liquid. The sun isn’t setting at all. On these shores, I’m afraid for the first time, afraid about leaving the Restitution alone for so long without food or exercise. I think, actually, that the Restitution has grown fond of me during its captivity. I’ve heard that happens with terrorists and hijackers, that friendships and even romances blossom during adverse circumstances. (The Restitution, of course, is the true terrorist.) True, most of those relationships are ephemeral, and end in failure, but I’m nothing if not an idealist. I harbor hope that the Restitution would grow to like me and the care I took of it, but that’s probably ruined by my strange voyage north. The bear does catch up to me, and moves to about a stone’s throw away. The bear is that close, so I shoot it. It’s a good thing I remembered my shotgun. However, the bullet doesn’t seem to phase the bear. The bullet lands above his heart. The bear must have been wearing body armor or something. I’m lost and my little studio apartment might as well be on the other side of the world. The bear starts walking towards me in earnest. I drop the gun and, having no time to reload, beg for forgiveness.

The bear isn’t interested in forgiveness. I stand there, knowing there is no place I can run. The bear bludgeons me in the stomach. I fall to my knees, and the bear grabs me by the scruff and starts asking me questions. At first they are hard to follow.

What did you have for breakfast this morning?

I didn’t eat anything.

How often do you write your mother?

She never writes me, so I’m not sure what the point is.

Do you like decorating your apartment or does someone do it for you?

I don’t have an apartment. And I live alone. In the woods.

The bear is clearly not satisfied. The bear tells me to take off my pants, I don’t need them where I’m going. Where am I going? The bear doesn’t answer. There is no negotiation possible. You’d like to think that life is full of choices, and it is mostly, but only when the choices don’t mean anything. But then a lot of people die and everything changes, and no escape can be willed into being, and no thought can be trusted.

I take off my pants. The bear doesn’t ask for my boxers, thank God. The bear takes my gun away and takes me by the hand with its paw, which feels like a soggy mitten, and leads me north across the frozen ocean. The ice groans beneath us. I’m very chilled and can’t feel the fingers on my non-held hand. At this point I’m really worrying about the Restitution, that it’s desperately afraid, stuck in the closet like that. I hope that it doesn’t hurt itself trying to break out. I would feel completely responsible. And yet I’m afraid to mention this to the bear–who’s probably a cop, or like a cop. I never before thought that Alaska has cops, but maybe they’re all bears, which are all over the place. We walk and walk. There’s no night. My lips are blue, like the minnows. If I die, maybe a hunter will stumble upon me and break me up into bait.

After what seems like days, I tell him we have to stop, I need to rest.

The bear looks at me. The bear is cold too, despite wearing my pants, but is too proud to admit discomfort. It’s like osmosis or telepathy, we understand this about each other.

We stop.

Are you happy? the bear asks.

It depends what you mean by happy, I say. But no, in general I’m not happy. I’ve been kidnapped.

You’re not kidnapped, the bear says. You’ve been detained.

I ignore the bear’s tortured reasoning and continue. But if you mean happy as in awed, I say, then yes, I’m awed by the northern lights, the small sun, the absence of other people.

Do I not count? the bear asks.

Bounty hunters don’t count, I say, as a guess to his profession. I’m right because he sniffs and lays on the ice, hurt.

We’ll sleep on the ice for a couple of hours, the bear says.

But then he gets up, pulls a few pieces of wood from his bag, and builds a fire. I’m not sure how he does that. What’s more, I really don’t think it’s for his benefit, but rather mine. Which scares me. The bear must be up to something. His face, however, is serene as he noodles with the logs and throws his bag onto the flames. The ice below the fire hisses. Grudgingly, I move closer to the fire and warm my hands. But the fire only reminds me that everything around and inside me is cold, and soon I’m not too crazy about the fire. I sulk. The bear starts singing a tuneless tune:

Taiga, taiga, burning bright

In the sorry silent night

What immortal fear of trees

Could frame thy empty arteries?

I tell the bear that the song was very pretty, and I’d heard something like it before, but the bear didn’t say anything. He looks at me and says I should get some sleep.

Don’t worry, I tell the bear, I’m on it.

During the bear’s sleep, during which I lay awake with my eyes closed, I daydream about the Restitution’s countenance. I roll over and press myself against the bear and its musk, pretending it’s the Restitution. The bear is asleep for sure, because it lets me touch it.

Oh, oh, oh, I say.

When the bear is dead, I wake up and see if anyone’s watching. Just on the off chance. Seeing no one, I cut out the bear teeth with my knife and put the teeth in my pocket. Perhaps the reason that I forgot to recount the knife is that I always carry it with me, in my boot. Anyway, I also carve out the bear’s skin and wear it and put on my pants, which smell, unsurprisingly, like bear. Bear is all over me. At last I’m rather warm. Warmth gives me strength to think, to be less sorrowful for a little while. I wonder if the bear ever had a family. I find no wallet with little cub pictures on its person. We are all people, that I must not forget. I think, here’s my chance at last to head home, or at least back to the Restitution, but then I see a glimmer to the north. To the north is the north pole. I always wanted to go there. It would be a crime not to go. Even in such horrible circumstances, I must remind myself, there are always silver glimmers, pockets of resistance to the dreariness and death that is life.

It takes me about a day to get there, as much as a day matters up here. I’m not counting hard. The azure gleam I see is that of a chain link fence. Who knew. I approach the fence to see what is inside. I crawl forward, so as not to be seen. But no one seems to be guarding the airstrip and the hundreds of golden airplanes enclosed by the fence. Each airplane has a little name inscribed on the side like: _______ or __________. Something like that. I think, these must be very bad people, horrible people, to have such secret secrets way up in the North Pole like this. If only the Restitution could see this, maybe it would feel less bad about its confinement. I realize that is a paradox. I don’t care. Everything is a paradox deep down. For example, when I caused hurt in the lower 48, there was a sense within me that I had immediately died when causing that hurt. It wasn’t supposed to happen like that. I wanted to hurt others–I desired it, felt compelled by its thesis, and thought that once it was done, it would solve things. But it killed me instead, and created more problems than I could have done by doing nothing. Even then, when I put the hurt on, I still felt compassion for those people, their love for each other, which I could tell they really had to work hard at. I felt horrible for them all, except perhaps for the dog. I wanted to hurt it too for awhile, but then I saw it was already gone. If the dog was going to drown chasing after a stick in the swimming pool, I figured there were worse ways to die. I scooped the dog onto the concrete with the skimmer and found the Restitution inside the dog, covered in dog juices. Its eyes weren’t even open yet. It was shaking and dying. Not yet, I told it, holding it close to my red suit. Not yet.

That was awhile ago.

Santa, I call out.

After a little while, a polar bear comes to the gate. The polar bear has a very large gun, loaded with bear shot slung over the bear’s shoulder. The bear squints at me and looks me up and down.

No Santa, chief.

Where is he? I ask. I wonder silently why all of the planes are silent.

Dead, the polar bear says. We don’t get many visitors up here.

And the elves?

Eaten. By bears.

At this point it’s unclear whether the polar bear is merely toying with me. But then the bear says: did you catch him?

I think quickly. I couldn’t, I say. He was already dead.

Really? The bear looks surprised. How?

A tree fell on him outside of town. It was pretty stupid. Crushed his skull.

Huh. The polar bear taps the butt of the gun. That’s too bad. Terrible. His secret will be disappointed. Crushed, you’d say.

Is the secret here? I say, trying to keep my voice level, feeling ready to topple.

No, no. We talked about this. Remember? The secret’s already flying back. Shit. I have to call it. We have to retrieve the corpse. The secret will not be happy.

The bear pulls out its cell and tries to call, but the interference from the pole was horrible. The polar bear says it would be better later in the endless day.

Sounds good, I say. By the way, can I see it?

What?

The north pole.

The polar bear squints again. You’re far from home, aren’t you, brother bear?

I’m just a tourist at heart, I say.

Right.

Nevertheless, the bear opens the gate and lets me inside. Maybe it’s some weird bear code that lets me in. We walk past the shining planes. I’m afraid to ask questions about anything, especially about the secret, which is the last thing I want to see.

Don’t touch them, the polar bear says, as we pass through the first row of planes. They must not be sullied.

I have no intention to, I assure the bear. The cockpit and all the windows are painted black and I can’t see inside any of them. The bearskin is getting hot and sticky with the bear residue. I’m deathly afraid of it slipping off, but at last we reach the pole, which is a hole in the ground. An ordinary, albeit deep hole, as wide as a wading pool. No signs or touristy garbage to announce the top of the world. The ice below us doesn’t make a peep. There should be ice, or at least water, within the hole somewhere, but all that it contains is down. Also, the walls look like concrete.

How far down, I say.

The South Pole, the polar bear answers.

There is a musty smell coming from it, as from a closet with a living thing inside. The wind quiets down. My hair is frozen. I’m far away from the world of bait and knives, although not quite as far as I’d like. I laugh, though I don’t really mean to.

What’s so funny? the polar bear asks. The bear keeps fiddling with the cell but it’s hopeless.

Look up there, I say, pointing. It’s the plane. The secret.

The bear looks up and I push it in. I nearly fall in myself from the effort. The polar bear doesn’t scream or curse me. It would have been better, more striking, if the bear did. It would have made me feel better. The bear’s cellphone sails away from the bear’s hand and skitters on the ice. I take off the bearskin and knife, my little pack of bait, my beef jerky, which I haven’t touched since I’ve arrived in Alaska. I lost the taste for it some time ago. I hesitate, then throw it all into the hole. Then I take off my goodwill suit and throw it in too. I’m naked at the pole. I want to tear off my skin, but no dice. That stays. I’m stuck with me. I hear my objects clanking against the sides of the hole. Those at the south pole might be surprised at what comes streaming down from the top of the world, but I suspect that people have done that before. In fact, people have probably made pilgrimages to throw stuff away here. Better than an incinerator. For all I know Santa threw the troublemaking reindeer and little helpers in. The hopeless cases. Broke their legs and gagged their mouths and just got rid of them. I feel bad for thinking this. Santa was probably a good man who brought joy to many, which is more than I can say for myself. And even the times I brought joy–say, to my parents when I was born, or when I helped that old lady across the street as a cub scout–I very much left that behind. In my apartment. In the walk-in closet.

So I sit down on the lip of the hole, my ass freezing, my legs dangling over. I check the sky for planes; I’m ready to cover my face. What I’d like to do is go back and set the Restitution free, but I can’t bear to see it go, because go it would, far away from me, back to the lower 48, probably to find the dog where it came from–which I didn’t hurt, remember–and the swimming pool. I couldn’t risk it. The Restitution needs me, after all, even though it doesn’t realize how much. It is me, in every meaningful sense, except for the remorse, which it is stricken by, which it lives through every day. Over which I alone, between the two of us, control.

The polar bear’s cell rings, giving off a few tinny bars of Silent Night. I’m so startled that I nearly fall into the hole, but catch myself.

One thought on “Taiga, Taiga, Burning Bright (story)

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