Arktos

Jeannette Stacey  |  12 min read

 

The world is soft and pink-stained. I hear screams; they are faint. Nothing is louder than the sound of my own labored breathing and the thud of my own heart against my exposed and aching chest. I try to pinpoint the sound but I don’t know where it’s coming from. I hear the whine of the dogs and the moaning of another crew member, but nothing is louder than the sound of my own breathing and the thud of my heart. A member of the camera crew is calling me.

“Peter!”

My ears are ringing and I start to moan. I feel pain and cold all around me; I hear the wind as it whistles through the wreckage. I start to remember. My head rolls and I catch sight of a pink-stained white. The smell of smoke is suddenly apparent and loathsome. The sound of my heartbeat fades, but the wind sings on and the steel of the chopper begins to groan. The cry grows more faint.

“Help me Pete.”

I remember my lines. I can’t say anything but I want to say my lines. The cameraman keeps calling, softly now, and the dogs keep whining, but I can’t go to them. I pull my hood away from my face; my vision slowly widens and my breath is silenced as it reaches for the open air. The sliver of dancing silver widens and the world opens up around me. There is snow and a dark arctic sky. There is blood and the smell of burning flesh.

“Please...”

The dogs start to howl; I can see their faint, blurred outlines sticking up from the snow. I try to sit up, but the pain is too much. I try to sit up and I fall. My lines tease and torment. Still, I want to say them—but I can’t. I inhale smoke as it rises from bodies, but the morbid revulsion has yet to penetrate the haze of my thoughts. My lines come to me in perfect order, as clear as if the script were before me now.

The cameraman says nothing.

I need to get up. My lines fall away and I command myself to get up. I start with my hands—one is cut, badly; the other held firmly in the confines of a glove. It was from my hand that the pink stain was made—from my own blood. I start to think of it as its own character. I begin to murmur my lines for the blood to listen.

The silence persists.

I remember I must rise, but my twisted arm convulses as soon as I place weight upon it. The muscles within it rattle and quiver; the sensation is uncontrollable. My other hand feels around for something to hold on to; I ignore the pain as snow and dirt force their way into my wound. The dogs cry; another soft sound infiltrates my senses. It is new and strange; a sort of abrasive swishing. I recognize it as my singed jacket and I suddenly feel very hot. My hand reaches for the buttons, but I cannot steady it enough to unfasten them. I remember that I need to get up.

There is a soft, familiar sound; one I have heard made by actors but never in real life.

I find salvation in the rim of a skid. My bloody hand grips it, but I do not feel connected. I don’t remember telling my body to act; I simply watch helplessly as blood stains helicopter metal. The blood—which listens as I softly tell it stories—is a patient thing. I watch my fingers clench to lift my body, and the world shifts around me. I have imagined a greater distance between myself and the horror but, now upright, I realize I am only feet away from it all. Calls of the cameraman suddenly rewrite themselves as hushed whispers.

It ends, softer than it started but strong in its last breath.

The rotor is bent and sticking up from the earth, placing a gentle shadow over the director’s corpse. It was once a he, alive and joyous, a true arm-waver and an honest critic. It is burnt and blackened, smelling foul and looking wretched in its state of untimely decay. It lies cradled in darkness while I suffer in the blinding arctic white. With time, everything becomes clearer—but the white expanse has burned a hole through my brain. It is gaping and hungry, hungry for an understanding of what has occurred. The first dog ceases its cry and turns to me while his brother lies still in a bed of snow; the snow that brings him comfort in death, the same snow that takes from me my sanity.

     The emptiness left behind in the wake of the cameraman’s death rattle is all consuming.

My back curls and my arms reach forth without instruction to embrace him. His thin and shivering frame, coated in velveteen fur of mouse-colored brown, brushes against mine. For a moment I feel as if we are one, consumed by the snow and the wreckage of chaos around us. But passion and a love for his brother drives him; my own heart feels still. His brother lies motionless in the snow, but I don’t remember him always being there; I remember him crouched behind the pilot’s seat and secured to the cabin’s wall, I remember him as a dim outline standing in the snow. Some dreadful moment must have brought him to where he rests now, outlined by pink ice and shrouded in fear—but I never saw it happen. I wish I could have been there on the ground beside him, arms outstretched and consciousness prepared. I wish that I could have caught him as he fell to his final resting place.

For a moment, the arctic is silent.

I pull the dog closer and tuck him under the warmth of my jacket. With every movement I crack and groan but I can’t stay like this. I can’t leave his brother alone. He whines softly, as if begging me to act, and I feel his body quake against my own even as I push it further. I sink into snow and slip on ice. My hand grips the skid as I pull my body closer to his brother—his brother who stains the snow pink, and his brother who watches me with fear in his fading eyes. I watch my glove covered hand reach out to him and look with wonder as the wrists turn and fingers loosen to stroke the frost covered coat. I have begun to move with purpose and recognition, at last of my own volition.

Then, in the near-distance, there is a sound.

He starts to push against me and struggle. Long, blunt claws attempt to embed themselves in flesh too frozen to become their prey, and with a lethargic hand I grip a muzzle that sweats with sound. I am weak, too weak to hold tight to anything, but he is just as tired, his body just as aching and helpless; with little more than a gentle grip I hold him fast. Softly, his brother whines and kicks as if running in his sleep. But his brother is awake, and his eyes show fear of the noise emanating from the shadows of the wreckage. His eyes no longer watch me, but something in the distance, something from behind. I feel a pressing of my jacket against my hair and skin, filling its creases with a sudden weight, warming me to my core, and the sound grows. The presence grows. It is curiosity more than a sense of self preservation that wills me to turn and face what beast has lain its shadow over me.

Something fills the cavity in my chest, and it smacks of what’s to come.

Behind us, standing over the body of the late cameraman, is a bear, massive and bright, seemingly all powerful. We struggle and moan in the wasteland; here is where such a being excels. It makes a sound akin to our cries, but we are nothing alike. The bear bellows as man whispers and dog whimpers; we are nothing alike. While I should be frozen in fear, I find myself suddenly feeling lighter and freer. Perhaps it is the thrill of the situation that leads me to such a state, but I suspect something unnatural at work. The dog at last sets himself free, launching from my lap to land beside his brother. His growls are laced with terror and his brave stance belied by the tight curl of his tail between his legs. The flesh within my glove wraps itself around the skid once more, but this time with more purpose.

I rise.

It is curious that the bear does not seem to notice me, and even more curious that, despite the danger it presents, it leaves me enraptured. I walk forth, but my steps are ragged and faltering like those of a child who is taking his first steps. I watch the beast, captivated, letting its majesty fill me. Its coat is a pale alabaster far more brilliant than the snow, one so clean it seems to glow. In fascination I look on as it leans closer to the cameraman. But, it is strange—strange how its lips do not part to take hold of the corpse, and strange how the nose does not halt to absorb the dead man’s scent. I cannot tell if horror or a sick sense of peace pulls my gaze; I will not discover its motivation now.

With graceful motion so simple it seems like magic, white air formed from the breath of the bear passes over the forehead of the cameraman.

Peace seems to blanket the carnage of the helicopter’s crashing. The sensation is blissfully nauseating, just as is the thought that I feel joy even as I am standing in the gravesite of the crew. The emotions are inexplicable, but they bring with them a reminder of my place. Every inhalation fills me with smoke, and for each moment longer that my stare holds, my eyes water and freeze. There is nothing here but cold and death. Cold, death, and a bear. But it does not linger; the beast turns from its post with every intent to leave us be. For a brief moment my eyes catch those of the bear; there, emptiness reigns and silence engulfs. In those eyes lie nothing.

It strides from our place, leaving me fearful once more.

And for the next set of hours, marked only by the falling of the faint arctic sun and the worsening condition of my company, I am left alone. The peace I once felt in the bear’s presence recedes to black and a night darker than any other I’ve experienced spreads like poison across the horizon. The world grows colder and for a time there is nothing but black and the sound of a dog struggling to survive; failing. I have long since laid my head, given the struggle it is just to stand. Arctic gusts blow crystalline winds over and through me, yet I feel hot and alive- I can sense the blood as it trickles through contracted veins and I understand my body as a stream in winter, creeping slowly away from the threat of ice. Rivers were wild once—wild before man aimed to tame each beast in sight. I try to tame him now, pulling him closer to the warmth of my jacket with a weak and lazy grip. He leaves me every time. He leaves to lay beside his brother as he dies.

Death sweeps across us in waves, coming in the cold of night.

His brother passes as the moon watches over. He cannot be persuaded, cannot be saved. He condemns himself, lying with his own pale frame wrapped around a corpse. I reach out with numb and bloody hands; I curl barely living fingers underneath. The river’s heat drives me to the limits of sanity but I know still what is right and I understand that this is something I must do. My mind wanders and concentration fails. I want to say my lines. I feel nothing but my lines. I miss the bear. I long for it to come to me—breathe upon my features. My features that are sculpted in the favor of society. I am a two bit actor made by his features in an independent film funded by my father. I am sprawled in the bloody snow beside a helicopter wreck and I cannot even save the life of a dog before my own. I have forgotten what I was reaching for; I am weak and worthless in my state of febrility.

By morning, I am alone in my breath.

I can no longer move. My body is trapped in this bed of ice and my soul fading with the dark. The presence of the bear beside the deceased is betrayed only by its light. It stands a torch among shadows, with a flame that flickers beside the dead. But as with the bear, peace returns and silence prevails. I watch as the powerful beast’s glow reflects on the snow; see the glimmer captured in each frozen droplet of blood upon my treacherous hand. My hand which forgets its purpose and place. The straying, pathetic hand that cannot save a life. I feel the pain of the dead and feel responsible for their lives. The bear turns to me, gazing into me with eyes of pitch that encompass space and eternity. The cold heat I had felt under the oppressive weight of my jacket fades slowly; my breath softens and deepens. My eyes flutter. The bear steps closer but makes no movement. It is a curious time to sleep, I think.

I am not afraid.

The bear stands above me, an image flickering between the black frames of my eyelids. I see it now differently that I ever have before. It is an image of night; the sky and the heavens, dotted in stars and cradled in harmony. It is a being of cessation; fickle like the moon in the day, steadfast and guiding like the suns of midnight. I wait to feel its breath against my face, but it does not breathe. I wait for the own familiar rush of my air into my lungs, but it does not come. The dead do not breathe. I see a familiar white cloud, but feel no tickle of air across features crafted in the likeness of Zeus. The cloud is not breath; I cannot say what it is instead. The dead cannot speak. The bear is not a bear.

It is the sky.