I’m looking in from the road on a misty spring night at the Cape Cod house I grew up in. It is 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 cast out onto the tall evergreen trees in the front yard. Through one room, the moving blue glow of a television holds my eye for a few moments. Inside, someone dreams LCD dreams before a shifting world. From the asphalt I stand on a mountaintop, staring down at the ruins below. I’d come a long way from the river valley of the acne scar between my eyebrows, the crescent of my collegiate crack-up. The dissolution of the 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 landed 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 apocryphal 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 asleep in their beds. Svalbard: the land of my fever dream.
In the university museum at the top of the world 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 deer bow-hunter. The memory now seems to ache with luxury. Up here 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 up here, surviving on scraps in the springtime. The Norwegians and Russians too survive on dwindling coal mines, pulling up just enough to keep their power stations running.
This is an island of thermal dwellers kept safe and 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 chambered round at the ready. “Get behind me while we crest this hill.” 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 something safe. A trip taken with a parent where danger is kept to a minimum. But still I dreamed: the flare is fired first, then rifle cracks round after round. The sounds echoing across the glacial plane of my mind until the view from the top is nothing but shale and moss.
From the port-side rail of the ferry that carried 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 high above the ferry just as they follow the lobster boats of Cape Cod. 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 runoff of burning blubber and whale blood staining the sides of great sailing ships. Even later still, in a college dormitory half a world away, I would watch a short film about this place and be seduced- obsessed even. I might have excused it as innocent escapism. There were missed calls, and glass strewn across the floor from a beer glass 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 proper I saw a flash of white as an arctic fox vanished under raised Siberian-style dormitories. Men and woman separated into block-like structures, nicknamed “London” and “Paris”. I wonder how anyone could have had a family here. 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 hardwood floorboards. A stray scrap of paper, a coin from a dissolved country, or a child’s trading card. On the crumbling Soviet avenue looking into the darkened 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 their 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. I remembered the visions which came to me when my brother and I lived in the same house, though by that age we had separate bedrooms. He’d found a way to lock his door. When I saw him in the ward, he looked transfixed by his excavation sitting in the corner when I walk in with our parents. Our father grabs his wrists. The tin and corrugated iron of the covered rail-lines leading to the mine’s entrance sing a low voice in high winds.
I matched my line-of-sight with that of the statue of Lenin, the father of the Soviet Union, looking out over Prospekt Avenue and the Nordenskiöldbreen glacier. The main square sloped down towards the docks. Pyramiden was empty except for several disgruntled Russian guides who lived out of 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. I was in the beautiful ruins of lives once lived.
In their reclaimed meadow I carried all my belongings on my back: cook set, food, water, and shelter. That far out I was a cell on the edge of the known universe, draped in space-age fabrics to keep 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, not allowed to begin rotting until the eventual warming of the earth.
Ever since I was a child in my parent’s house, I have been obsessed with fringe dwellers, and by extension the danger that comes with it. On this trip north, I often thought of Chris McCandless standing in front of the Magic Bus. He stood 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 would write my last postcard back home while sipping on Vodka. I silently raised my glass to the former 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 blew in Pyramiden as it does on Cape Cod. The same lightness of the northern air is also brought on by the crisp mist following a rainstorm. I’m 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 headed in at speed. The ferry 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 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 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. Something is coming closer from the white. Somewhere out there I hope I might see a flare launched high into the sky. My blood is boiling in the cold. My paternal guide has left me. You handed me the gun and left. 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. I can’t sleep. I can’t stay here. I take aim at the wall, 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 am struck that even at this hour, the windows aren’t completely dark. “They saved this place from us.” I think to myself. I look at the traces drawn by the birds in the trees, all of them singing out to the oncoming day in a chorus of wonderful white noise.