I’m looking in from the road on a misty night at the Cape house I grew up in. It’s half past five in the morning. The ancient white farmhouse, nearly as old as the country itself, stands renovated by its new owners. I can see the glow of the kitchen windows on the tall evergreen trees in the front yard. Through one room, the shifting blue glow of a television holds my eye for a few moments. Someone is dreaming LCD dreams before a shifting world. From the asphalt I stand on a mountaintop, staring down at the ruins. I’d come a long way from the river valley of the acne scar between my eyebrows, the crescent of my collegiate crack-up, and the dissolution of out familial union. I’m back home now living with my mother in her new house, but before this I was far from here.
I crossed the threshold of a roaring jet plane in the arctic circle. I was as north as I could go. The nautical twilight at midnight at the top of the world reminded me of a-thousand-and-one nights spent staying up to watch the sunrise with friends. The waking dream of my first arctic breath filled my head with visions of Soviet miners and their Norwegian counterparts on the edge of the human realm. A land of settlements where there are no roads. More polar bears stalk the night than people sleep in their beds. Svalbard: the land of my fever dream.
In the university museum there was a rifle on display called “the jammed cartridge.” Behind thick glass the tarnished bolt was permanently frozen in the open position and a rifle round half protruded from the chamber. The weapon was found with the partially-consumed remains of the hunter who had carried it. When I was young my father introduced me to his friend, a bow-hunter. The memory seemed to ache with luxury. In Svalbard, to hunt is a mutual experience. Not a single advantage must be given away. The air outside the modern architecture blew with an alien weightlessness. So little is alive out there, surviving on scraps in the springtime. The Norwegians and Russians too survive on dwindling coal mines, pulling up just enough to keep the turbines running.
This island’s inhabitants are kept alive by hand-me-down machines and surplus Norwegian army equipment. There are watches posted on the northern approach to Longyearbyen, where bears are most often sighted. I read signs in both Norwegian and English instructing residents to remove the bolt from their gun while grocery shopping. When I ventured out into the mountains, I could not go alone. My guide, a woman from the Czech Republic, walked in front of me up the shale and gravel mountainside with a round in the chamber. “Get behind me while we crest this hill,” she told me. I was protected. The quickening pulse of blood as we neared the ridge-line was hot in my face. The anticipation was not danger like war maneuvers, but rather it was something safe. A trip taken with a parent where danger is kept to a minimum. But still I dreamed in that moment: the flare fired first, then rifle cracks round after round. The sounds echoing across the glacial plane of my mind until I can see the view from the top is nothing but shale and moss.
From the port-side rail of the ferry that took me across Adventfjorden to the abandoned Soviet mining settlement of Pyramiden, I watched Lovecraftian mountain peaks spell out a thousand years of geology like a rune stone. In the wind, gulls followed along and traced signals just as they do above the lobster boats back home. Many years ago, longboats came this far and made landfall among cresting schools of arctic whales. Centuries later, this very same water would be thick with burning blubber and whale blood which stained the sides of tall ships. Even later still, in a college dormitory half a world away, I plotted my suicide and watched a short film about north and was seduced– became obsessed even. I drifted there between the missed calls and the glass strewn across the room from a beer bottle thrown clean through the drywall. I sat on the floor and dreamed. My mother helped to patch the hole when I graduated, bringing with her congratulations and plaster.
In Pyramiden’s center I saw a flash of white as an arctic fox vanish under raised Siberian-style dormitories. Men and woman separated into buildings, nicknamed “London” and “Paris”. I wondered how anyone could have had a family there. When the mines were closed and Pyramiden abandoned, what belongings were left behind in those dark rooms? We leave small unseen traces of everyday life to be mined from the veins of dust between the floorboards. A stray scrap of paper, a coin from a dissolved country, or a child’s trading card. On the crumbling Soviet avenue looking in on the dark windows, I didn’t know how long I stood staring.
My eyes followed the rail-cart tracks up the mountain towards the coal mine entrance 500 meters above. From my distance, I imagined wounds winding down towards open palms like the mine shafts wound down from the mountain toward the sea. I imagined the extracted material dripping down from the mountain like from the upper bunk in a faraway shared bedroom onto the floor. I remembered such visions which came to me when my brother and I lived in the same house. He’d found a way to lock his door. When I saw him in the ward, he looked transfixed by his excavation, his good work, while sitting in the corner. When I walk in with our parents, our father grabs his wrists. The tin and corrugated iron roof of the covered rail-lines leading to the mine’s entrance applaud in high winds.
I matched my line-of-sight with that of the statue of Lenin, looking out over Prospekt Avenue and the Nordenskiöldbreen glacier. The main square slopes down towards the docks. Pyramiden was empty except for several disgruntled Russian guides who lived in the old Tulip Hotel. The other dormitories had been taken over by migratory birds who built their nests on the windowsills of the western facing wall. Their dance from nest to nest was lit with golden afternoon light in the foreground of a sparkling glacial view. Streets overgrown with moss and shrubbery made quiet grazing for reindeer.
In their reclaimed meadow I carried all my belongings on my back: cook set, food, water, and shelter. That far out I was a single cell on the edge of the known universe, draped in space-age fabrics keeping me warm. This place belongs to no one now, not even the Russian Geographical Society guides. I thought about the miners who once lived here. Most of them died with their families in a plane crash in 1996. They were buried in permafrost outside Longyearbyen, not allowed to begin rotting until the eventual warming of the earth.
Ever since I was young, I have been obsessed with fringe dwellers, and by extension the danger that follows them. On this trip north, I thought often of Christopher McCandless standing in front of the Magic Bus. He stands in a perpetual memory of the photo of him before he starved, holding an index card which read “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!” The north was his. It was his model I’d followed in the first place, as he chased his comet’s tail away from the family that loved him. I remember thinking how strange it was at the end that he went by his real name. While sitting in the Tulip Hotel, I wrote my last postcard back home while sipping on Vodka. I silently raised my glass to the Soviet state while I waited for my boat back to the Norwegian side. I’d grafted my mother’s maiden name to the return address. I wasn’t sure if that was the beginning or the end.
The wind in Pyramiden reminds me of the Cape– the same lightness of northern air is brought on by the mist after a rainstorm. I’m back to where I have been, still on the side of the road, trespassing on the place where I used to live; the ruined civilization at the edge of my brain. In my head I wait for my boat home across the ancient fjord. I imagine Viking longboats off the shore, replaced by whaling ships, and later a tourist ferry. It looks like the one back home which sails to Martha’s Vineyard. I’m walking to the cantine with Russian miners at the top of the world; our families are still intact. No one has to die. I dream of my brother’s blue eyes which are the color of the arctic sky. I first saw the real color when I looked away from the dried blood beneath his fingernails crusting like coal dust.
I’m holding a loaded rifle with a busted bolt. The deer hunter is gone– already dead and consumed. Something is coming closer from the white. Somewhere out there I hope I might see a flare launched high into the sky, but none rises. My blood is boiling in the cold. My paternal guide has left me. You handed me the gun and left, but how do I get out of this place? This feels like the end of the world. I’m gathering supplies as a survivalist of the ruined union. My bed is covered in shattered glass from where I through the bottle. I can’t sleep. I can’t stay here. I take aim at the wall of white, when my head is suddenly filled with the chirping of birds from the Siberian dormitory, then from the evergreens outside of my old childhood home. I look at the traces drawn in the trees, all of them singing out to the oncoming day in a chorus of white noise.