About the Author

Steven Heighton

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But what thinks Lazarus? Can he warm his blue hands by holding them up to the grand northern lights? Would not Lazarus rather be in Sumatra than here? Would he not far rather lay him down lengthwise along the line of the equator . . . go down to the fiery pit itself, in order to keep out this frost?
–Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Wanted to shadow the three of you, all scattered
by the one storm. Tracked you (or some sediment,
cinder of you) to churchyards along the seaboard
near Mystic, or indio graveyards above the gaunt
gorges of Sinaloa – a search party of one, a mere
century-plus late. No, more – with every resource
I searched, clue traced, a shade more of your oblivious
withdrawal, waning to ash, as I scrawled my course
(it seemed) ever nearer, through tiered detritus
downward, by the spadeful, a volunteer
unwilling to leave the warlike scene –
recovering just fragments, fallout, DNA.

–Dawson City, Yukon, September 2001

Hartford, Connecticut, September 1876

An Esquimau playing Mendelssohn is a tremendous novelty. The local gentry fill the seats of the Main Street Memorial Hall, whiskery gentlemen in frock coats and wing collars, the ladies in gowns and layer-cake hats trimmed with ribbon and mock flora. Their elegant figures are shored up by trusses or corsets – synthetic exoskeletons fortified with whalebone. If any members of this audience make a connection between their own underclothes and the presence onstage of a child from the Arctic whaling grounds, they don’t let on. They are effusive in their praise of the little Esquimau. She is clearly a prodigy. She is only ten years of age! She has been playing the piano for only three years! How charming she looks in her cream cotton dress with the puffed sleeves, the ends of her braids joined at the small of her back with a red ribbon bow. As they whisper and nod, a lush welling of self-appreciation and security warms their chests.

In fact, Punnie is not playing as well as she did when rehearsing for the recital with her teacher, Mr Chusley, who will be performing after her and before the chief attraction, a master recitalist from Leipzig who is said to have known Mendelssohn personally. This lean and tousled master, seated severely in the front row, will be aware that the girl has committed a few slips. What he doesn’t know is that her playing also lacks its usual earnest, beguiling zest. Punnie is dizzy and has to concentrate to suppress the dry scraping cough that has been gaining on her since April. Throughout the summer holiday she has been practising, as much as four hours a day. There is something unnerving, quietly violent, in her discipline. She’s the sort of only child who lives for the endorsement of adults. More and more these days she coughs while she rehearses. She and her parents, Tukulito and Ebierbing – Hannah and Joe is how they are known to Americans – came down from the Arctic after the rescue over three years ago, but the poor child still carries the Far North in her lungs. So Mr Chusley puts it. He even urges her to practise less.

Actually Punnie’s cough began not in the Arctic but after their journey south.

Stiff in the aisle seat of a middle row, Tukulito sees that her daughter is struggling, but the audience is so caught up in the spectacle of this oddly pallid Esquimau child playing one of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words – op. 30, no. 1 in E flat – that they don’t notice. Tukulito’s face has the waxen stillness of somebody watching the last stages of a shipwreck, trying to contain her alarm – a stillness that could be mistaken for calm. This is her usual expression. Only her eyes, sharp with practical understanding and quick sympathy, lend life to her face; enough life for a dozen faces.

In fact, the child is something of a prodigy. Mr Chusley, a soft little man with sombre brown eyes, rumpled clothes and clove-scented breath (and, unluckily for his dreams, stumpy hands and fingers), has said that he foresees fine fine things for the girl. Very fine indeed. And Tukulito grasps that this is not a man given to flattery. A stutterer, he keeps his utterances short. I’ve never yet tutored a child possessed of such a, such a faculty of silent concentration. Your Punnie seems to me utterly undistractable. Chusley does not then detour into ethnological conjecture, like some of the well-meaning Groton neighbours, on whether this is a specialized trait–a result of the savage’s need for vigilance by the seal’s breathing hole, or his wife’s Oriental patience, acquired in the igloo waiting with the children for her mate’s return. . . . For some years the life of the Esquimaux has gripped the romantic imagination. They’ve become a staple of polar adventure novels, which emphasize their fortitude, their loyalty, their stealth, their rare inscrutable lapses into cunning and violence. In the 1860s the fascination with Esquimaux even hatched a short-lived fad for duelling with bone harpoons. The Polaris debacle and Lieutenant Tyson’s subsequent drift on the ice with eighteen other castaways have made them even more popular; Tukulito’s husband Ebierbing was in some ways the hero of Tyson’s published account of the drift (as Second Mate Kruger was its villain), and this Esquimau family have been celebrities since settling in the port town of Groton, Connecticut.

Tukulito still thinks about Mr Kruger but has not heard from him in some time.

The child is small for her age, no grand piano ever looked huger. She will start a piece straight-backed on the bench but as she plays she will tip gradually forward so that by the last bar her face is just above the keys. (Mr Chusley has tried to correct this.) Her playing is stronger now, op. 67, no. 5 in B minor, “The Shepherd’s Complaint.” Those firm-pacing, stately notes in the minor until, just as the ear is tiring of the solemnity, the tune resolves into major.

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Every Lost Country

Every Lost Country

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Border Stone
Air this thin turns anyone into a mystic. Dulling the mind, it dulls distinctions, slurs the border between abstractions—right and wrong—or apparent opposites—dead and alive, past and present, you and him. The brain, rationing oxygen, quiets to a murmur, like a fine-print clause or codicil. You’re at high altitude for the first time and this mental twilight is a surprise as rewarding as the scenery. This recess from judgement, sedation of the conscience. How your sleep here seems too shallow for the nightmares that await you at a certain depth. You and the rest of the party are basically drunk. Till now you’ve had to treat others for minor problems only, small cuts and contusions, headaches, insomnia, so this intoxication remains a luxury, not a medical challenge. Or a moral one.
To you, right and wrong are not abstractions.
Still, think of the freedom of those summit squads dreamily bypassing climbers fallen in the Death Zone—the strange luxury of that. What Lawson himself has done. You might have thought twice about joining his expedition as doctor, and bringing along your daughter, if you’d known his story when you signed the contract. But at this altitude your numbed mind has to wonder. Camp One. Put yourself in his boots if you can. Now say for certain what you’d have done, or will do.
September 20, 2006, 4:17 p.m.
She sees the trouble coming because she knows her father.
Sophie sits where she has sat for the last few afternoons, on the flat top of a concrete cylinder rebarred into the glacier, her backside in Nepal and her boots in China—Tibet. The seat of her favourite ripped jeans covers the line of Chinese characters inscribed in the concrete. Beside her stands a lightweight aluminum flagpole not much taller than she is and skewed some degrees off vertical. The breeze cooling her back can’t stir the small Chinese flag, because monsoon winds or, more likely, mischievous Sherpas like Kaljang and Tashi have spooled and tangled the flag tightly to the pole. Come to think of it—and the notion pleases her on a number of grounds, playful, political—she is likely seated a dozen steps or more inside China now. Chinese border patrols have to hike up the glacier and adjust the markers from time to time. A week ago, she and her father and Kaljang and Amaris stood at the edge of base camp and watched the Chinese set up a device on a tripod and take readings and untangle and lower the flag and remove the flagstaff and pry out the marker and roll it laboriously upslope and core new holes in the ice and slot it in. Some of the men were in blue coveralls and black toques like a swat team, others in olive down vests over camouflage gear. They trudged from chore to chore and said little. They ignored their audience, though one of the men in camouflage, maybe eighteen or so, waved shyly and blew kisses to her and Amaris. Amaris ignored him. Sophie waved back. Beside her, Kaljang’s eyes narrowed merrily in his brown face and he showed his nicotine teeth. She snuck a glance at her father on her other side, but he too seemed tickled by the scene, rubbing his salt and pepper stubble, shaking his head affably. He seemed almost himself again up here.
The Chinese formed up in a crescent and saluted as they raised the repositioned flag. The red had faded to pink. “There,” her father said. “They just reclaimed the thirty feet of territory the glacier pinched from them.”
By four in the afternoon here the sun sets behind the Himalayas, but a quarter-hour later, the cold dusk already deepening, it finds a nock between two summits and reappears, spotlighting the pass and the valley and dyeing the glacier descending into China, so it resembles a vast, glowing channel of lava running down a volcanic slope. It happens a minute or two earlier each day. Yesterday a few others walked over from base camp to watch with Sophie, but today she’s alone with her sketchbook/journal. Perfect. She was a romantic as a child—a keeper of padlock diaries, a lover of horses, fantasy novels, evenings in the dark of the covered porch on her papa’s or mama’s or yiayia’s lap, hearing the natter of rain on the roof shakes, the nicking of drops off the eaves into the garden—and at seventeen she retains enough of that lyrical spirit to choose sunset over the recreational flirtations of the Sherpas in base camp. Kaljang especially. He’s cute, for sure, and to her surprise they like some of the same music, though on the whole she prefers to hang out with—tag along behind—Amaris McRae. She understands herself to have a bit of a crush on her. What girl wouldn’t?
Now, as small figures, distinct in the sun’s spotlight, inch toward her up the glacier, she thinks not only of her father but also of Amaris. Amaris will want to be here, to see and film this . . . this what? It’s no border patrol, even at this distance she can tell. She glances over her shoulder at the slopes of Kyatruk, where Amaris, with Wade Lawson and the rest of the summit team, should be back at Camp One after an acclimatization run and a night at Camp Two. The sun in her eyes shuts them hard. She turns back and looks down the glacier. She stands up. The figures, of varied sizes, children, adults, some in brilliant maroon garb, some in parkas, are in hurried, jerky motion, a few coming at a tottery jog. Clawing at the thin air as if pulling themselves up a fixed rope. She catches sight of other figures some distance behind them—the blue swat team and soldiers in camouflage gear. They’re yelling, the cries coming small but emphatic, caroming off the valley’s steep walls. Then another noise she can’t identify—small popping sounds, like someone stepping on bubble wrap. She pulls back the hood of her fleece. A few of the soldiers are halting and falling to one knee, as if resting. More of that popping sound. An awful thought occurs to her. She turns around to base camp, gets a faceful of sun. Visoring her eyes with a hand, she opens her lips to call out. Her father, though—he will probably be first to respond.
Kaljang is slouching among the tents at the edge of camp, smoking a cigarette and watching her. It’s becoming a minor annoyance, how she always seems to be on his GPS, but now she’s relieved. He waves, flips back his hair and with the cigarette clamped in his lips he trots toward her on short bowlegs packed into tight jeans. Maybe he hears the faint shouting from below the pass—it’s growing clearer, along with that other noise—or has he just read her anxious posture? “White people are easy to suss out,” he said once in an untypically tentative way, and at first she guessed that he must have heard others, maybe British climbers, use “suss,” and he wasn’t sure he was using it right. Then it hit her—he felt awkward because he didn’t mean all white people were easy to read, just Sophie.
She turns back and looks down. The amber light on the ice is shearing to one side. In the widening blue penumbra, one of the lead group has fallen, others stopping to help. Some glance back over their shoulders. She herself edges back from the border stone. Her father will be angry at her for not calling him, but he will hear the shots soon enough and he will come. Kaljang, winded, reaches her side, tosses his cigarette, takes a look down the glacier and clutches her arm through the fabric of her hooded fleece.
“Sophie. Come on.”
“What? We have to do something.”
He pulls her toward a crop of rockfall boulders, another of her sunset lookouts. When the expedition first arrived, Mingma Lama and his nephew Tashi strung ropes between the boulders and festooned them with white scarves and prayer flags in navy, white, scarlet, green, and yellow, and she and her father helped them. Mingma Lama said the flags and prayers would go down with the glacier into China, a gift to the Tibetans. The colours seem weirdly lurid now, hyper-bright. She tugs her arm free. She is taller, maybe even heavier than Kaljang, but he’s always foisting his chivalry on her—helping her over obstacles, grinning as he grapples with her pack, trying to wrench it off her body and lug it himself—and this pushy helpfulness bothers her most when in fact she does require his strength and expertise.
“I think the one is shot,” Kaljang says. “Tibetans.”
“I know.”
A housefly, by the sound of it, has just whizzed overhead. That’s strange.
“I’m okay,” she says.
He grips and pulls her more firmly and her legs lag, numb and clumsy, as if the tendons are severed. Again she yanks her arm free. As if in refusing his help she might conjure away the situation that has caused her to need it. In air this thin the brain slows, so when things happen quickly, your thoughts straggle—the climbers tell her it’s a prime danger up here, and far worse higher up.
“Here,” he says. “Stay.”
He tries to push her down behind the nearest boulder, whose grey face in the last of the sun radiates dry heat like a sauna stove. “Dr. Book!” he yells toward base camp.
“Don’t call him yet! I need to think. We need to think what to do.”
“Please, down.”
Jigme and Lobsang are strolling toward them. They hiked down here from Camp One this morning. Jigme is in cargo shorts and a parka and wearing earbuds, wires running down to the MP3 player in his hand. Kaljang flaps his raised palm at them: go back! Jigme shrugs and they keep dawdling over. Kaljang plucks his two-way radio from its holster with a flourish of manly competence—courting her, even now—and crouches down beside her. She’s unaware that she has crouched down. A sweet juniper whiff of sweat, tobacco. “Hi there?” he says into the radio. “It’s Kaljang.”
“Oh my God,” she says, “how did he get here?” Wade Lawson stomping through base camp with what looks like a machinegun slung on a strap over his shoulder.
“Get the Dr. Book now,” Kaljang says into the radio. “We need him.”
One time when she was ten, her father charged out the front door as if on an emergency call. She’d called him, shouting from the front window to the kitchen where he was making spaghetti and meat sauce, drinking a glass of beer, humming off-key. She’d never seen him on an urgent call but she guessed that on his foreign postings—the long stretches when he was away—he must race around like this all the time.
Across the street, two high school thugs were performing the ritual preliminaries to an assault. Their victim was the street’s most conspicuous target, a timid, chunky clarinet prodigy who always carried his instrument around. Matters had just reached the shoving stage—one attacker shoving from the front, the other from behind, the kid’s head bobbling. Her father moved with an oddly stiff, lunging gait, slippers slapping the icy pavement, and she in the doorway, watching him go, hugging herself to contain the trembling. He wasn’t a big man (now, at seventeen, she’s as tall as he is, and even then he didn’t seem paternally huge), though he was fit and gristly and had a focused gaze of the kind she associated with predators who could render prey catatonic with a glance. He was a karate expert, too, she told herself then, on the freezing porch, as he rushed toward the bullies. Had she told herself that? Anyway, it was something she believed back then, later discovering it wasn’t true—he had one of the lesser belts, had only taken a couple of courses, years back, before medical school.
The bullies turned toward him and took a step back each. Her father, seen from behind, standing in the gutter, looked small, while they, big guys in inflated parkas, were elevated on the sidewalk above the curb.
“Hey, relax, man. We were just fooling around.”
What her father said next she didn’t hear. Short jets of white breath huffed up from him, like comic strip word balloons with brief expletives. Simon, the clarinet boy, recoiled his pudding face and rounded his eyes at her father, as if reconsidering the source of his peril. Her father stepped up on the curb. The bullies looked at their boots, wagged their hooded heads lamely and splayed their gloved hands as if dropping weapons on the snow. Then turned and slouched off.
And then? The radiance of the remembered crisis had overexposed what followed. Her father, she knew, would have comforted Simon, his hand on the boy’s shoulder, head tilted as he looked him firmly in the eye—You sure you’re all right?—and maybe chucked him under the chin.
Hours or days later, dinnertime, still scared and thrilled, she asked him what he’d said to those guys. Her mother set down her fork. Her brother, Pavlos, looked up from the broccoli floret he was trying to atomize with his stare. Her yiayia, who viewed domestic strife as a form of entertainment, slid her glance expectantly from face to face; her son-in-law might be an Anglo, not a Greek, but at the table he was seldom lost for words.
“Never mind,” her mother said shortly, though her eyes flicked toward her husband with a wry, impromptu fondness. “Never mind what Papa said.”
“Pass the wine, love,” her father said.
“Papa should learn to be a bystander sometimes. Or call the police.”
“There’s no such thing,” he said.
“As what?” Sophie asked.
Her mother filled her own glass, then yiayia’s.
“Bystanders.” He said the word quietly, as if embarrassed to find it in his mouth.
With both hands Sophie took the bottle and poured her father some red wine, sorry for him, painfully proud, still unable to see how her mother might feel: that by making his care, his very life and limb, equally available to all, he deprived them of an exclusivity they had a right to expect.
3:05 p.m.
Wade Lawson stands on the eastern lip of the level acre of snow and rock now known as Camp One. He stretches his cracked lips for the video camera. The camera’s humble size still bothers him. Amaris has explained, but all the same. Kyatruk may not be the world’s tallest mountain, but it’s a handsome rock with a tantalizing history, one of the few worthy peaks still officially unclimbed, and Lawson feels that the imax treatment, or at least 35 mm widescreen, would do it better justice. It, along with him. Take the view behind him: two lines of lesser peaks framing a massive glaciated valley curving down to the Tibetan plateau, its dry, khaki plains sprawling outward with a clarity inconceivable at more banal altitudes. Scintillating sunlight. How can a camcorder hope to show the scope of that? Show the bigness of this whole venture. But that’s how Amaris wants to do her “doc,” she has told him, stressing words like spontaneity and immediacy and intimacy. “You’re the expert,” he keeps saying, though it isn’t a phrase he ever feels comfortable using. In Lawson’s experience, real experts are rare, and when you work with people you have to exert as much control as possible if you hope to have things work out in rough accord with your will.
All the same, she seems to know what she’s doing, and she seems to be on his side. He wasn’t sure at first. He still isn’t—not always. In fact, he shunts back and forth between opposed certainties: one minute she’s definitely “on side,” and how could it be otherwise, given who he is and what he has been through and the intense time they are spending together, and the next minute he feels certain she’s going to betray his trust and enrol in the regiment of his detractors . . . and maybe she already has. That would be the easier course for her, wouldn’t it? As a sort of journalist?
Then again, she has a reputation for working against prevailing opinion.
“Right,” she says in the drillmaster tone she uses when shooting, “I’m starting now.”
“I thought you were filming,” he says.
“With you grinning into the lens like something off a tour bus? You still don’t get the idea, Wade. And it’s not film, it’s tape.”
He enjoys her cordial rudeness. It’s less cordial in the morning, but that will be the altitude. He knows how much she isn’t sleeping.
“Take out the gum,” she says.
Shy, deferent women (what he mistook her for at first, with her pageboy haircut, her reading glasses, her Asian face and small stature)are usually more attractive to him, but he’s always prepared to adapt and this is a temporary arrangement. Their fondly hostile banter, he feels, is a fun and clever mode they are developing and it reminds him of a certain couple he saw once in a film, though he can’t recall which film, or any details. If this repartee finds its way into Amaris’s film, it might help show the world that he’s not the humourless ego machine his critics make him out to be.
Maybe his attackers’ problem is that they’re not the directors of their own lives, so they hate the few people who are.
“Turn that way,” Amaris says. “Toward base camp. Right. In profile. I just want a couple seconds here.”
Proud of his profile, Lawson approves of Amaris’s instruction. In his view, most men worry too much about the muscles of their torso, and especially the arms, to the neglect of their legs and also, yes, their face. In the case of the legs, this is no mere cosmetic point—not for a professional athlete. The face is another issue altogether. For one thing, it’s the part of you that’s always visible. Few factors affect appearance like the bone and muscle structure of the face. Heavy brows, a strong jawline with prominent, almost equine jaw muscles—these are secondary sexual characteristics, markers of virility. Years ago Lawson read in some magazine that men who chew gum have stronger, more dramatic jaw muscles. He’d taken up gum-chewing and over the years has left a trail of colourful chewed nuggets down the cordillera spine of the western hemisphere and high up in the Alps, the Caucasus, the Himalayas.
As Amaris films, he works his jaw slightly and gazes out over the valley. He doesn’t forget himself for a moment, yet he isn’t immune to the beauty. He has loved the high country since childhood, when, after his mother died, his father moved them from Vancouver to Nelson, B.C., to open a brake repair shop. Lawson and his big brother Clyde—passionate amateurs who improvised their equipment or went without, relying on strength and guts—summited Mount Gimli when he was just thirteen. He’s still proud of that.
Something nabs his eye a long way down the valley, at the toe of the glacier by the turquoise thaw-water pond beyond the terminal moraine. At this distance—a few kilometres—he can make out nothing distinct, just specks of colour amid the grey scree fields and boulders around the tarn. Slight movement.
“All done?” he asks.
“For now.”
He pats his windshell pocket for the binoculars.
“Tashi! My binoculars. In the tent.”
Lawson shakes his head and grins. He feels that the young Sherpa’s antiquated salute, while no doubt sincere in its desire to please and impress an admired leader, is also a touch satiric. The salute pleases him anyhow. He doubts that viewers of the documentary will catch the wink of artificiality. So he grins on, with leaderly tolerance, while in his gut a twinge of concern delves deeper. There should be no activity at the base of the glacier. The Chinese aren’t due back to correct their border until after his expedition should be done and packed up and hiked out to Tarap. Few travellers or pilgrims, he has heard, still use this high and difficult pass. Lawson wonders if another expedition could be on its way up, from the Chinese side instead, but what are the odds? Kyatruk remains unclimbed not so much because of certain technical challenges above 7,000 metres, but because it’s so remote, so expensive. He’d remortgaged his house and his failing climbing gym to underwrite this assault and it still wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t convinced one of the regulars at the gym, along with his “nephew” Zeph, who works there, to enlist as paying climbers, and if Amaris hadn’t landed two film grants. As for sponsors, the big players won’t touch him now and he has landed just one, a credit renewal company called New Future that was attracted by the theme of the climb and of the film—“redemption”—and that seems to see Lawson, disgraced but still game, as a man their ruined clientele can relate to.
Now he gauges the possibility that a team of his rivals has launched an expedition as a direct challenge to him. A wild idea, but for a moment his scalding sense of grievance makes it plausible and also lends a grim gratification, like any mental screenplay of victimhood, yes, and vengeance—because now he sees that they’ll be so far behind on their acclimatization, they can be no real threat. His little summit team will be ready to go in three or four days, if he and Mingma can get the fixed ropes in place by then. In fact, if he had to, he could probably summit within a day or two, solo, no ropes or oxygen, as he would much prefer. But he has to get both paying climbers safely to the top, along with Amaris—Amaris above all. Her and her little camera. Getting her up there past the Lawson Wall, as he already thinks of it—that’ll be the challenge.
“The Chinese come back?” Tashi asks, bowing his head as he presents the binoculars with both hands, a fawning courtier. (Is that a slight smile?) Amaris has followed the young Sherpa to where Lawson stands. She flips her sunglasses up onto her toque and squints into the distance. Freckles on her small, sunburned nose. Her strong chin lends a hint of aggression to her girlish face, like a skeletal assertion of will and robust sexuality. Who’d have guessed?
Lawson slots the barrels into his eye sockets and scans the blurred landscape impatiently.
“What is it, Sahib?”
“Give me a second,” he snaps.
“Oh . . . I see it now, Sahib.”
Lawson figures this is a lie. He has concluded that the kid needs glasses. A fresh wave of grievance swells up in him. The best Sherpas are too expensive for him and the best climbers, or best known climbers, now shun him. Jake and Zeph are respectable rock climbers but lack high-altitude credentials. His head Sherpa is a drunk and the rest are raw teens. The team medic, cheerfully social, weirdly unserious, belongs to some outfit like Doctors Without Borders, so he’s used to working for pocket change in war zones and sweltering African clinics but knows zero about high-altitude medicine. Plus he’s brought along his daughter, with her nose ring and her snowboard—another mouth to feed.
“I see it too,” Amaris says. “I’m getting my camera.”
“Your camera?” Lawson says. “But this has nothing to do with the climb!”
The rustle of her parka as she walks away. He finds his target zone and focuses. A group of people, twenty-five or thirty, filing up a rough trail over the gravel of the moraine, nearing the toe of the glacier. They’re dressed as variously as folk in a big city multicultural parade—some in bright parkas and jeans, others in layered purple robes (monks or nuns, he guesses), a few in heavy, weathered-looking coats he dimly recognizes as traditional Tibetan wear. On a man’s shoulders, a bobbing toddler. Further niggles of motion catch his eye in the unfocused valley behind the group. He adjusts the lenses. A second, smaller group leaps to clarity: Chinese border guards and soldiers armed with automatic weapons. For a moment he wonders—hopes—could the armed men be some sort of escort—maybe for pilgrims? As if. He shakes his head. This air slows the brains of even the people most used to it. It’s hard to estimate the space between the groups. Not far, though. The first Chinese trooper, or officer, has reached the shore of the tarn. Lawson refocuses on the Tibetans. He can feel the pulse in his temples and at the root of his tongue.
He doesn’t care much about politics, but he’s roughly aware of the situation in Tibet; one of the attractions of Kyatruk is that the border up here should be too remote for refugees. He can’t look away. He’s willing the Tibetans to hurry and escape, although escape, naturally, will bring them across the border and into his base camp, and possibly draw the Chinese with them. “Oh, fuck,” he says under his breath—“why now?” And he sees, now, that it will probably be best for the Tibetans to surrender where they are, to go back with the soldiers, before anybody gets killed.
A brief, concise clattering beside him. He turns his head. Amaris has set up her camcorder on the tripod and stands tensed behind the lens.
“They’re Tibetans, I think,” she says.
“Yeah.” Lawson guesses she hasn’t seen the Chinese yet. Her camcorder’s zoom lens will lack the range of his high-power binoculars. Good thing.
“I’m going to have to go down to base camp,” he announces. “You two stay here.”
“I’m coming too,” she says.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Mari—you’re exhausted.”
“Wait!” she says, “there’s something else . . . Oh, wait . . . I think it’s those soldiers we saw last week. What would they . . . “” Her voice dries up.
He juts his jaw as he lowers the binoculars. “Right. I better just go down and make sure everything’s okay.”
I’m coming too,” she tells him in her hard, argumentative tone, turning her face to him, the camera still running.
“You’ve got to rest, Mari. We’ll be going back up to Camp Two in—”
“Wade, are you serious? You think I’m not going to go to base camp now and shoot what’s happening down there? This is what I do.”
“But this is not your story. Look, we’ve come halfway around the world . . .”
“It’s a story, Wade!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“And stop shouting all the time!”
She flicks the camera off, unhitches it, roughly collapses the tripod.
“But the Tibetans,” he says, trying to confine his voice, “they have children and baggage. They’ll arrest them way before they get near base camp and you’ll have made the trip down for nothing. It’ll take, like, maybe two hours . . . if it’s both of us.”
“You saw those soldiers and you weren’t even going to say.”
“The view’s better from up here, anyway. You’ll get better shots from up here.”
“Are you coming, Wade, or am I doing this alone?”
Lawson is good at altitude, as good as anyone he knows, has summited Makalu without oxygen—he knows it for a fact, even if the Others dispute it—but now he feels a keen need for bottled gas.
“Amaris. You are exhausted. You look exhausted. You haven’t slept in days.”
Tashi lets a chuckle slip, then channels it into a cough. The goggling sunglasses on his bony little face made him look like an anthropoid housefly. Lawson shoots him a glare. The kid looks down, turns on his heel and flits back toward the camp, where Mingma stands staring and Jake’s face, with its bushy, pale moustache over beaver teeth, peeps out of a sagging tent.
“Dude,” says Jake, “what’s up?”
“If you push too hard,” Lawson goes on, “I have to warn you, Mari, you can get really sick up here. You don’t want to get sick up here.”
You don’t want me to get sick up here,” she says, and turns and stalks toward the trail.
“Well . . . of course I don’t!”
She’s marching with the tripod over her shoulder, a petite, purposeful form: coat-puffed body, boyish hips and thin legs in Lycra, nothing on her feet but yellow boot liners. The altitude is getting to her, all right—normally she’s so organized and composed.
“Amaris, wait!” he calls with a quaver in his throat that distresses him very much. Deepening his voice he says, “At least get into your boots.”
And he adds, in his mind, I knew you’d fuck me over too.
VOICE OVER, SCENE 4?, with slow pan upward from base camp to the peak, maybe with Dutch tilt?, then series of stills: Albert Murloe with Princeton rowing team, 1921/ a copy of a Murloe pamphlet/ unknown solo pilgrim with yak/ second slow pan upward, but of camp 1 and camp 2 part of slope:
Lawson claims he is drawn to Mt Kyatruk by the story of amateur climber Albert Murloe, the only other person known to have attempted the peak, who disappeared somewhere on its upper slopes in early September 1924.
A young American who flees Princeton in 1922 in the wake of an unspecified scandal, Murloe drifts through various towns and cities in Western Canada, including Lawson’s own home base, Nelson, where he becomes an amateur mountaineer and also writes and hand-sells pamphlets endorsing his peculiar theories about health and stamina. Murloe’s basic theory is that meats, fruits and vegetables in their natural, fresh condition “over-liquefy” the body, therefore “diluting and draining its strength through diuresis”—and that such foods should only be eaten in a preserved, dried state. He writes, “Let a man subsist on nothing but such desiccated fare, he shall have the stamina and will-force of our remotest ancestors, that is to say, of ten modern, civilized, men.” It’s an idea that will convince Murloe that he can achieve what others can’t.
Like Maurice Wilson, Earl Denman, Aleister Crowley and other mystical amateurs of the early and mid-twentieth century, Murloe is drawn to the Himalayas for spiritual as much as physical reasons—or for reasons that exist in the place where the spiritual and physical overlap. In fact, his original plan is not to climb mountains at all, but to trek north from Dehradun, India, and then slip across the border into Tibet, at that time an independent country closed to foreigners. Disguised as a pilgrim, his face darkened by means of henna and walnut juice, he will then hike a thousand kilometres to the forbidden city of Lhasa, subsisting on jerky, raisins, prunes and seeds. But in Drongpa the Tibetans catch him and escort him under guard to a pass on the border of Nepal. There, struck by what he describes in a letter left with his guards as “the most sublime and lovely mountain in the world,” he declares an intention to climb Kyatruk, as the Tibetans tell him it is called, with only the clothes on his back and his now sparse store of dried food. His guards try to dissuade him, but Murloe is adamant, and anyway the face of the mountain he means to climb is on the Nepali side of the border. The Tibetans, though they have no obligation to help Murloe, nevertheless lend him a sheepskin coat and set up camp on the glacier at the top of their side of the pass, near where Wade Lawson’s base camp now sits. They expect Murloe to come down off the mountain in a day or two, and figure he will need assistance when he does. He never comes down. According to the guards, who later deliver his letter and their account to the regional governor in Drongpa, he is last seen climbing up the extensive snowfields high above the glacier, probably near Lawson’s own camp 2.
3:46 p.m.
How can there be so little oxygen up here? Here, where there’s so much sky, and air—huge blue volumes of space seeming so cleansed, fresh, ecstatic with energy . . . so breathable. She and Wade are pounding down the switchbacks worn into the dense Styrofoam slopes above base camp. Already this morning, all but sleepless, she spent two and a half grinding hours applying her brakes to descend the steep trail from Camp Two. Now every fewswitchbacks she needs to rest, bent double, hands braced on her quivering knees. Her lungs seem filled with vaporized glass: with each deep breath, she hacks until she half expects to leave a crimson froth on the snow.
This pace is unnatural but she will not ease up. Easing is not Amaris’s way. She will not ease up, yet she’s slowing down and Wade is close behind her, casually overtaking her. It’s humiliating to work so hard and be overtaken. At Camp One, starting out, she vowed she would beat him down and half believed she could do it, could draw on her years of triathlon training, along with this spike of professional adrenaline (she keeps glancing over at the glacier to see how events are playing out, but she can’t focus, her vision slurred, head trembling)—and her deepening dislike of Wade. Now, at a hook in the trail, he grazes past her, his elbow making the slightest contact with her breasts, and this contact is more insulting than either a rough jostle or a squeamishly complete avoidance would be. She knows, of course, that he’s too crudely direct to plan so sly an affront. His breathing has a brusque, chuffing sound, like a man in a gym kicking a heavy bag. He slows to keep pace with her from the front, as if to be helpful.
“The Chinese might mistake you for a Tibetan,” he booms.
“Very funny, Wade.” Seconds pass before she can finish. “A Tibetan with a high-tech video cam?”
“Why not?”
“Nobody’s brain works up here,” she says in a breath.
“You’re making a mistake.”
“Like we’ve all got Alzheimer’s.”
“It’s not too late to go back, Mari.”
Amaris,” she says.
“It’s not far.”
She totters, rounding the next switchback, thrown off by the tripod on its strap over her shoulder, a green steel Manfrotto, indestructibly solid, a bit heavy for up here, but then with the Sherpas around she has rarely had to carry it anyway—though she has tried. She should have asked that Tashi or Mingma come down with them, but she set out in a huff. Wade, she knows, is aware of her struggle and is trying to capitalize on it to change her mind. “Here,” he says, “let me take that for you.” He says it as a command and she always declines commands. She hates what people assume about her from her size, coupled with her race. She sees it in their complacent looks; she speed-reads it in the lingo of their smallest gestures. How salesmen will spice up their pitches with a hint of smirky aggression. How barflies figure it’s cool to hit on her harder and longer than on, say, a lofty, forbidding blonde. They assume (or so she assumes) that she is pliant, pushable, eager not to offend, gratified by the slimmest attention, and she relishes those little scenes when she debunks them.
Now she surrenders her Manfrotto, coughing hard, refusing to meet his eyes—or the machine-sleek facets of his aerodynamic shades. His black bodysuit, designed by himself, resembles a wetsuit, and this enrages her too. Her fuse has always been on the quick side; up here it’s instantaneous.
“We should have roped up,” he says, shaking his head tragically. “I had no idea you were this tired.”
“Walk!” she tells him, too winded to shriek the word.
Having staged this scene of his own, he pelts away down the switchbacks as if to levy interest on her humiliation, or maybe to run off and pitch the Manfrotto in a crevasse. That pounding swagger—it’s like he’s trying to stamp indelible footprints into the mountain. Can’t he see that whatever’s happening down there could add to the story, his story? True, it might also be the key to another story. Maybe a better story. She doesn’t know how much more time she can spend with Wade John Lawson. Even the sex is mediocre now, though she can admit that’s largely because of her own fatigue, this dredging cough and a thumping headache like a nonstop hangover. Getting closer to him wouldn’t be good for the film, anyway—or for her. Always best to be the one who feels less, who can scramble clear of the smoking crater when things implode.
At first the sex was very, very good—in the hotel in Kathmandu, the lodge in Pokhara, even in the tea houses as they trekked up through the Dolpo, her energy buzzing on the cool, crystal air and the sunshine and the glasses of sugary milk chai and the exercise her body felt born for. And the eye-popping visuals she was taping. Not that she ever much liked Wade. Yes, he has the Olympic body and is handsome in the older way she prefers, with prematurely grey hair that looks terrific against his coppered skin, and he sports a solid, rhinocerine self-esteem that’s striking, almost touching, given his public fall and his private losses, and he remains the proud curator of his own personal hall of fame and either doesn’t know or doesn’t know why this antagonizes people. His unguarded cockiness in an age of canny PR makes Amaris feel almost reluctant now—an expert hunter training her sights on something lumbering and endangered, like a last mastodon.
Several of her films have focused on a difficult outsider. She believes it’s only by chafing up against abrasive characters that you can agitate your fears and assumptions into the light of day, shed them and grow in useful directions. Most people—most of her acquaintances—instinctively seek out agreeable people as lovers and friends and business partners and creative collaborators, and who can blame them? Like the instinct for musical harmony, it’s perfectly natural. Yet harmony is conservative and you can only surprise and change yourself by diving into discord. She believes that face-on encounters with dissonant people—what she herself tries to be when confronted by the presumptuous—might force her audience to question themselves and their ideas.
At any rate, making those films has changed her. As has her choice of some highly discordant lovers in the past decade. Each has left her more independent, stronger, smarter. So will Wade. She will not appear on screen, but her voiceover will casually refer to their involvement. Wade’s wife has recently divorced him, so the reference shouldn’t bother him. He’ll probably love it. Wade the horse. As for how it makes her look, she tells herself to forget it. Being hated isn’t what hurts your possibilities, the fear of being hated is what does. How he feels about her after the film’s release means little to her. She knows he’s twinning their mummy bags each night partly in hopes of exercising control over the story. Fair enough. As in real, unrecorded life—or the version of it she has arrived at—they’re using each other. Well, love with no fine print or provisos is a sentiment with wishful splashed all over it.
These slopes lie in blue shadow but the hidden sun lasers light onto the pass and down the glacier. As she rests at a hook in the trail, she picks out the Tibetans, lit up distinctly, and the Chinese behind them. She hears a faint snapping she doesn’t recognize and decides it must be gunfire. She thinks of taking out her Canon and trying for a hand-held pan, but with her lungs heaving and her heart thudding its way up her throat, she’ll catch nothing with the zoom but a blur. There’s someone by the border stone, wearing black. Sophie Book. The girl should get back from there. She’s way too naive, too trusting. A faint maternal twinge helps push Amaris on, with her quaking knees, shrieking thigh muscles. Just a minute’s rest and her sweat is cold. Up here in the stratosphere, almost, when the sun goes, the temperature skydives like on some outer planet. Wade says that for climbers, above 25,000 feet or so is the “Death Zone.” To her, everything here is a death zone. She thought she’d love it, she was dying to hike up and climb and shoot, but there’s nothing growing or dwelling here, like in Antarctica. She can see the beauty—the naturally polarized light, fresh nuances in the spectrum of whites and blues, these monumental forms—but it’s the lifeless beauty of a tomb.
An interface of light and shadow bisects the glacier lengthwise, sweeps over it with time-lapse swiftness, muffles it in dusk, while the slope she’s descending lights up again. The sun reappears straight in her eyes, a solar cymbal clash. Wade is down there, spidering through the rock debris at the edge of the glacier, her precious tripod over his shoulder. On the glacier now he lopes up the flagged trail into base camp, surprisingly close below.
More faint sounds of gunfire, hollering.
Her legs are themselves again, oddly revived.
As she trots among the dozen scattered tents of base camp, Lew Book, up ahead, ducks out of the larger “control tent” and strides off, pulling a sweater over his shaggy grey-flecked hair. Now Shiva Gurung flaps out of the tent, waving Book’s medical kit and running after him. It’s the first time Amaris has seen Book in 911 mode. Sometimes he’s subdued, quietly serious, donning his glasses to examine a cut or a sprain, gauging his few words in a voice sounding disused, rusty and deep. More often he’s the heart of the party. She has never known anyone to change so fast in the vicinity of food, drink, company. He’s medium height, handsome in a weathered, rumpled way, pale green eyes, the whites very clear in his sundark face. He’ll enter the tent taciturn but then, smelling dal or ramen, wrapping his hands around a mug of chai, sitting on a camp stool by the Primus stove, he’ll unfold: cheeks flushing, hands and face unclamping as if in a photo sequence in retro order. Book aging backwards. Effusive vitality draws you in from the night, like a campfire or a packed cocktail lounge, and before long the Sherpas (always game for a party), the climbers, Shiva the Chef, Sophie Book and Amaris herself are all clubbed together in chatty rounds of stud poker or a two-board tournament of bagh chal. Even Wade will join in, though he always seems a touch distracted, as if trying to puzzle out just how he’s been deflected from the obsessive work of his climb. Or is it that he’s not the centre of attention here? Then again, neither is Book, who seems to moderate things, an instinctive impresario, so the limelight pivots round among the partiers—Book bantering inclusively, giving astute compliments, refilling mugs with coffee, milk chai, Nepali gin, once breaking out a bottle of decent Chianti he secretly packed up to base camp. She has seen how fast he’ll spot the agitation in Wade, or the skeptic’s edge in herself (she’s a loner more by professional will than inclination, but it’s a habit now and she starts to panic when spontaneous revelry tempts her from her work)—and he’ll strive to draw them out, draw them in, as if sensing in their reticence a threat to the group’s soaring mood. At first she figured he was a drunk, booze loosening his various valves as quick as a nitro tab under the tongue, but then a few times she watched him earlier in the day: Mingma Lama would pour gin into his own chai, but Book just stuck to chai. And still the circle leapt to life. At times Sophie would watch him with a mildly mortified, dubious look Amaris recalls from her own youth: the disillusionment of thinking a parent is donning a public face, as Amaris’s adoptive parents did constantly. But though Amaris is always game to debunk a phony, what she senses here is that Book, the social, sensual Book, isn’t faking. He thrives on groups. His own good mood is umbilically linked to the happiness of others.
It’s the other Book, the high-minded humanitarian, she doesn’t quite buy.
Ahead now, Shiva, in shorts and knee socks and a green Gurkha sweater, catches up to Book, gives him his kit and grips his other hand in the Nepali way as they stride together, almost running, toward the border. 4:26 p.m. Nice shot, a part of Amaris’s mind reflects, while the larger part is hurrying after them, her hands unzipping her parka and the inside sack she wears at her navel like an external womb, to keep the camera secure and warm.
4:02 p.m.
Lew Book and Kaljang Sherpa sit playing bagh chal on a folding card table in the so-called control tent. They sip milky chai spiked with Snow Leopard gin while smoking two-rupee cigarettes—something Kaljang is always doing and that Book does mostly when he’s having a drink and when Sophie isn’t around. Right now she’ll be a few minutes’ walk away, at the edge of base camp, on the border, where she likes to sit sketching or writing and listening to her music.
Beside the card table Shiva Gurung sits on a folding stool, watching their game avidly, as if Nepal’s national honour hangs on the outcome. He’s gripping the cracked handle of a skillet full of dry lentils, shaking them as if panning for gold. As the game nears its crisis—one tiger trapped, two goats eaten—his shaking takes on small tics and arrhythmias.
Kaljang flicks the bangs out of his droll eyes. “If tigers win this next match, I receive your daughter’s hand in marriage.”
“I doubt it,” Book says cheerfully.
“Tigers are very hungry now.”
“Sure, but the goats are unscrupulous.”
Kaljang jumps a third goat and removes it from the board. “Does that mean similar to unsuccessful?” he deadpans.
“Resourceful,” Book says. “No . . . cunning, full of tricks.” He tops up the young man’s mug with the eight ounce mickey. “Willing to do anything to win.”
“Ah, but they’re smaller, the goats—the gin affects them more!”
“Nah,” Book says briskly—though he hesitates with his next move, sensing that somewhere on the board he is missing some tiny, crucial thing. (That’s always what kills you.) “What’s a cocktail spread out over a herd?” he says, stalling. “Just loosens them up. These goats are in the zone, Kal. These goats are on their game.”
In bagh chal four tiger-shaped pieces try to “eat” their prey—twenty smaller pieces in the guise of goats—by jumping them checkers-style, while the goats try to neutralize the tigers by surrounding them. Book needs to pin down a second tiger, soon. At this altitude, thinking a few moves ahead is hard. If he loses a fourth goat, the game is all but lost. If he loses a fifth, it’s over.
The rattle of lentils, louder now, is like a drum roll before an execution.
“Attention now!” Shiva tells Kaljang, who plucks up a tiger and pauses, exhaling smoke with cocky slowness, then raps it down decisively behind a stray goat on Book’s side of the board—right under Book’s nose. Book has been wholly focused on the main crisis on the other side of the board. How very like him. He shakes his head and groans.
“Oh dear—too bad!” exults Shiva. (Book has defeated Kaljang just once, Shiva twice, but the Nepalis collectively mourn, debate and recriminate each time it happens.) Shiva adds something celebratory in Nepali, then quits shaking the lentils to tweak out a few black pebbles that have worked their way to the edge of the pan.
“You can resign now, Doc,” says Kaljang, suavely relighting Book’s cigarette. “To spare the goats their final shame.”
“You mean the tigers take prisoners?”
“Why should they not?”
“Besides, we might rally,” Book says. “Never discount the goats.” Squinting through the smoke of his cigarette, Book moves to block the threatening tiger. Shiva tops up his mug again. Book knows they oil him with gin partly in hopes that he’ll retaliate with his comic Nepali—really a random salad of Hindi and Nepali. He’s been posted in Nepal and India several times in the last few years and wherever he’s posted he picks up local phrases and mannerisms, though he only really performs them while at table, drinking tea, coffee or booze, playing cards or telling jokes.
In July he was in Darjeeling, treating outcaste locals and exiled Tibetans, including several who’d recently fled their country, when he got the news about Sophie. It wasn’t the first time she’d been in trouble with the law, though in the past it was after protests—against an arms fair, nuclear power, the closing of a women’s shelter—and less serious. Book arranged to cut short his posting and return to Toronto, but not before he read a mass email about a climbing expedition seeking a base camp doctor. As Book flew home (if you could call it that: divorced now, growing distant from his daughter and son, he stayed in motels on his brief stints in town), it occurred to him that by taking the job and bringing Sophie back with him to Asia he could temporarily remove her from her troubles, her now ex-boyfriend and her manic texting and general stress, while allowing himself and the girl to reconnect. And they’d be in the mountains—an isolated base camp—where she could hike and sketch. He knew she was yearning to go to Asia and was passionate about the Tibetan cause and they’d be right on the border, so she could still feel politically engaged—which would matter to her, he knew. At the same time, she would be on a true retreat.
That Amaris McRae is up here with them is a bonus he didn’t expect. He hasn’t seen her films, but he knows that her last one, about the alleged hypocrisies of a demagogic documentary filmmaker in the States, got up a stir. Now she and Sophie are spending a bit of time together, and Amaris is even talking about using a few of Sophie’s photos as stills in her film—a huge thrill for the girl. Amaris acts really different around Sophie. With Lawson, Book and the rest, she often speaks with a pre-emptive aggression, as if anticipating resistance or disrespect; with the girl, she’s like a slightly tart but affectionate young aunt. And while Book can tell she’s indifferent to Sophie’s earnest politics, she acts tolerant enough—though she keeps challenging Book himself about his own work.
Book keeps his connection with Lawson civil but reserved. Not that the man will care. Book guesses he sees doctors on expeditions in the same way a ramrod colonel might see an army chaplain on a campaign: one extra gut to fill, but necessary for show and for the comfort of the weak.
“Your cause is hopeless, Doc,” Kaljang says now. “Please resign.”
Book sips his drink. “Still lots of goats on the hoof, Kal.”
“The altitude is affecting them, I think.”
“They’re mountain goats.”
Kaljang draws on the roach of his filterless cigarette and butts out on the table next to the game. Shiva has set the skillet in his lap and is following the endgame with bugged eyes: Kal advancing his cutthroat tiger to the kill.
The fifth goat falls.
“It’s nature’s way,” Kaljang says, shaking his head in sham condolence, extending his right hand over the board.
“Nice work, Kal.”
As the two shake hands, Shiva asks Book, “You play against me, now, before I make the dal?”
“Sure thing.”
“And I be tigers?”
“Number me among the goats.”
“I’ll go check on Sophie,” Kaljang says, standing, “now that we two are betrothed.”
“Tell her I did my best to save her.”
Shiva Gurung is a dark, sun-dried little man with broomstick limbs, who, as a porter, can carry what appears to be several times his own weight. Over a bagh chal board, unlike the impulsive Kal, he’s a tentative, anxious plodder. The game starts slowly. The light is changing, the afternoon sun returning, transfusing the tent with its tranquil amber, the warm colour of bourbon. How lovely it makes the polished brass board and the small, shadowed tigers and goats! Shiva ponders his second move. Book stifles a yawn. He hears a sound. Distant echoes of a climbing axe smashing ice, he thinks, or rock. But no, he shouldn’t be hearing sounds from the mountain—there’s only snow at Camp One, and the climbers up there should be done for the day. He takes off his glasses, tilts his head. A voice crackles out of the handset radio holstered on Shiva’s hip. Shiva drops the tiger he’s holding, toppling two goats, and fumbles the radio to his face.
“Come in?”
Book hears every word Kaljang is saying to Shiva, Sophie’s voice in the background, her words unclear, the tone shrill. More of those snapping sounds. Book is on his feet before Shiva signs off.
As he nears the border, his medical kit in one hand and Shiva holding the other, every stride changes the picture for the worse. Sophie is standing behind one of the prayer flag boulders, holding her cellphone camera over the top like a periscope. Kaljang’s hand is on her nape, his elbow flexed high as he tries to force her to duck down. Lobsang peering around the side of the boulder, yelling what sounds like sports field encouragement, and Jigme squatting on top of the boulder, his little earphones still in place. And Lawson: between Book and the boulder party the man stands with Amaris’s green tripod over his shoulder. He’s staring down the glacier, mouth ajar, arms slack at his sides. The strap slides off his shoulder and the tripod falls next to his boots with a dull crump. Book speeds up, more or less dragging Shiva Gurung, who as usual refuses to liberate his hand.
A little mob of ragged Tibetans comes lurching up the glacier, as if wading against a current or fighting a monsoon. The lead group, adults and children, is maybe a hundred metres off, while a second, larger group lags behind, lugging some burden. Book can imagine. The faint firecracker din he heard in the control tent and over Shiva’s radio goes suddenly louder, and louder still the sonic ricochet of those shots off the cliffs—a harsh, tearing sound, as if jet fighters were keening overhead. The men pursuing the fugitives are dropping to one knee to shoot, but they seem to be aiming high, muzzles angled steeply, warning shots, maybe because of the foreigners watching from the border. It’s a body they’re carrying, the slower Tibetans, two monks and two other men each holding a limb, while a man in a sheepskin coat bears in his arms what looks like a child. He’s falling behind. The soldiers screaming.
“Wade!” Book calls as he walks behind Lawson, straight toward his daughter. “Let’s go, take cover!” He doesn’t look back to see if Lawson follows.
“Papa,” she says—a form of the term she hasn’t used in years.
“Your hand,” he tells her. “Get it down.”
Kaljang has given up on Sophie and is gripping Jigme by the back of his parka to drag him off the top of the boulder.
“I have to,” she says.
“You have to keep down.”
“Someone has to record this!”—and her blue eyes flare at him, earnest as a small child’s—long-lashed eyes so embedded in her face that even when she wears no eyeliner they look kohled, just as the hair falling across them is so black it seems dyed. Her mother’s eyes, her mother’s hair. A cramp in his throat stops his words. He kisses her cheek. Detaching himself from Shiva, he steps back the way he has come, to one side of the boulder, exposing himself, as if the best way to protect her is to offer a better target. Lawson is still out there, in his own exposed spot, though now he’s hunkered down. And now, as Book gapes, Lawson swivels on his haunches, turns his back on the action and holds a small camera out in front of him, getting shots of himself with the chase on the glacier in the background. Amaris is approaching blindly from the edge of base camp, her video camera at her face, feeling with her boots over the rough, dirty ice. No more firing. A thud as Jigme and Kaljang tumble to the ice together amid half-hysterical laughter.
“Come on,” Book whispers, watching the fugitives, “almost there.” He locks eyes with a teenage boy in blue work pants and a fleece-lined jean jacket, who looks back at him with a drained but dogged gaze, mouth panting, as if Book were the marshal at the finish line of a marathon. Beside the kid, a nun with a red parka over long, wine-red robes and flashing white sneakers. She is young and running and seems to have strength in reserve. They’ve almost reached the border stone, the tangled Chinese flag, but he can’t let them stop there because the true border now lies slightly beyond and he believes the soldiers will chase them at least that far. He starts toward them. In his heart, that familiar mix of indignation at an obvious wrong and the reluctance, even resentment, of a good-natured man who hates conflict but can’t seem to avoid it.
A hoarse cry, a crashing volley of gunfire. By his ear a fizzing sound like a beer can being opened. He’s unaware of ducking but he’s hunched low over his legs—frozen in place. The young nun lies on the snow a few body lengths short of the border stone and her red parka and her robes seem to be melting off her and expanding over the snow. An old man in a sashed sheepskin coat stoops toward her, slowly, as if puzzled or wondering if he can help; then he grips his chest and crumples. The volley of shots has not stopped the Tibetans but stampeded them. The lead group spills toward and across the border, passing Book on either side as if he were invisible. He smells them—buttery sweat and woodsmoke and the acrid ketones of hunger, fear. He has glanced back to check on his daughter, but now he can’t move forward, as he must, to reach the nun who lies weltering in a slurry of crimson snow and the old man with his face pressed into her lower back. The slower Tibetans stand or sit just short of the border, their hands in the air, the blue swat team moving among them. The four fugitives carrying the body have sagged onto the glacier with their burden. The man cradling the child is on his knees, quaking with soundless sobs. Others crying loudly, wailing. A young monk in robes and a parka haunches down beside the father, talking to him. Five men in camouflage gear, down vests and earflap caps, led by a doughy, tired-looking man with horn-rimmed glasses and a pistol, tramp past their prisoners and toward the border stone and Lewis Book.
He has heard about paralysis under fire. He never has faced direct, aimed fire, though he has been in dangerous locations often enough, twice under bombardment. But never at high altitude. Is this what’s happening here? Strange that while paralyzed with fear on a Himalayan glacier, where someone you love more than your own substance could also be in danger and where others you want to help might be dying, a part of you is capable of feeling mundane embarrassment, as if you just spilled a tumbler of Scotch on the emcee at a gala fundraiser in Toronto. Then the thought leaps through his bizarrely clear mind that Sophie and the others will be watching the Tibetans, not him.
“Papa, don’t move!” he hears her call, and it springs him back into motion, as stiff in the legs as if he were hatching from a body cast. Glancing back at her—her raccooned eyes staring over the boulder, cellphone still in position—he yells, “Stay where you are!” with extra force on the stay, as if to suggest that immobility, like his own just now, is a wise and necessary tactic. He turns and hurries downslope toward the fallen Tibetans as the officer and soldiers trudge up to meet him. By the border stone he veers a few degrees so as not to collide with the Chinese, but the officer, his thick eyebrows crimped to a scowl above his glasses, swerves to block him. The man lowers his pistol and raises the other hand, the palm glazed with sweat. Book points at the fallen Tibetans. “I’m going to help them.” With a slight bow he steps to one side, like a partner in some mannered dance or game. The officer moves to block him and again Book slips around him and the man explodes, barking some high, shrill phrase, shaking the pistol next to Book’s ear. Book walks past, staring straight ahead. Someone calls out in Chinese behind them and the officer quits yelling midsentence and starts away, back up the glacier. Book glances back. He wonders if the Chinese will actually approach the prayer flag boulders, or base camp itself, but the men and the officer halt a few strides short of Amaris, who is still taping. Beside her, Lawson frames big, hyperbolic hand gestures as he roars at the Chinese in fractured English. We no understand you! Here is border! A soldier pointing at Amaris, the officer shouting again, clawing at the air in front of his face, a clear signal, Lower your camera. Behind her the escaped Tibetans are being ushered deeper into Nepal—into base camp—by Lobsang, Shiva, Jigme. Sophie is still by the boulders with Kaljang, watching Book.
“Go into base camp,” he shouts at her. “Now!”
She hesitates, then begins to run after the others.
He turns and runs down to the bodies in the snow. Kneels and shoves a hand down the neck of his sweater and draws his glasses from his shirt pocket. Triage on the glacier. The nun has fallen face down, her arms tangled under her. Blood no longer pumps from the entry wound just below her nape—bright arterial blood, darkening into her parka and the snow. He has seen bullet wounds before. He slips two fingers under her chin for a jugular pulse and there’s nothing, as he feared. His fingers emerge bloody.
He turns to the old man in the rank sheepskin coat. His back, where Book expected to see an entry wound, is unmarked. There are rips in the coat but no holes or blood. Book eases him over. The man’s heavy head rolls from the small of the nun’s back onto the backs of her knees. A sunned face the colour of walnut oil—no loss of colour. A little blood on the hair but apparently not from any wound of his. Book makes a decision and tugs the man’s body clear of the nun, the back of the coat snagging on gravel in the glacier. He braces the man’s head with one hand as it slumps off the nun’s body. The grey-streaked hair parted in the middle, plaited at the back. He breathes into the man’s open mouth, thrusts with both hands ten times on the sternum and breathes into him again, deciding to give extra breaths in the rotation because of the air’s thinness. The man’s mouth has a sharp, starved odour, like scorched toast. Faint smell of caries. After a fifth round of chest compressions. Book detects a faint jugular pulse. He’s dimly aware of the captured Tibetans and the Chinese swat team watching him work. Sophie should be in the camp by now. Dizzy, he keeps breathing. When he looks up from another round of it, the officer and men are marching back down, Amaris McRae between two of them: a small Chinese-Canadian woman in athletic gear gripped by Chinese soldiers who now look much larger and, coming downhill toward Book, more menacing than before. The puffy officer in the horn-rims holds Amaris’s camcorder in one hand, his pistol in the other. From the top of the pass, at the edge of base camp, Sophie watches with Kaljang and Lawson, who is gesticulating and stamping his boot like a fool, yelling down at Book, ordering him to come back. It’s too late. Book can’t read his daughter’s expression from here. The camp, he thinks. Go back to the camp. Yet he is proud. He has to stay and augment the old man’s slender breathing. Above him, the officer says in a hoarse, mechanical way, as if reading words from a language primer, “You also will come with us.”

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Patient Frame

Patient Frame

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Reaching Mithymna

Reaching Mithymna

Among the Volunteers and Refugees on Lesvos
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Border straits

The only other person aboard the bus, the driver, shakes me awake. I see myself in duplicate in his aviator shades. “Mithymna?” I ask. He nods.

His dangling crucifix bears a crudely rendered Christ, the body skeletal, the face large, plump and calmly self-satisfied.

Mumbling thanks, I pick up my bags and step down onto the hot road. No traffic passing, not a living thing in sight. Is it already the siesta hour?

You’d never know this part of the island was thronged with war refugees and that hundreds, thousands more are arriving daily.

The bus stays put, idling, the driver slumped behind the wheel as if already napping behind his sunglasses. Nothing wants to be awake right now. I’ve barely slept in fifty hours—an overnight flight, a second night on a ferry—and as I close and rub my eyes, a montage of pre-sleep psychedelia starts looping.

Across the road, a town of whitewashed houses with terracotta roofs climbs the face of a high crag topped by a crusader castle. On this side of the road, olive groves fall away downhill to a long rank of cypresses, the sea glistening beyond.

I turn onto a dirt lane and let the slope carry me down through the olive groves past a few shuttered houses, gaping worksheds, a weedy lot where the hulks of cars sit rotting. I pass between two cypresses and here is the seafront, a paved road running north-south along a narrow beach of white sand and pebbles. The shallows look tropically turquoise. Orange buoys bob offshore. The sea smells of kelp and something I can’t place at first . . . associations of fear, distress . . . it’s iodine, the intensely stinging stuff my mother painted onto cuts when I was small.

On the low seawall, beside a pack of Greek cigarettes and a half-empty water bottle, there’s a coil of rope, some barbed steel hooks, and a cookie tin full of chicken feet the raw grey-pink of earthworms. Beyond them sits a white plastic pail. I look inside: a glutinous, translucent mass of octopods, motionless, though they give a faint impression of [trembling].

No sign of the fisherman, who might be napping in some nearby shade.

I follow the paved road south along the beach. There are supposed to be hotels and rooms for rent down here. Off-season now they might be cheap, especially for someone who means to stay for a month. But the small places on either side of this T-junction are boarded up. The buildings to my left—two storey hotels, cafés, clubs—are all shuttered. Would they normally be closed at this time of year or has the refugee influx damaged tourism even more than I’ve heard?

Something odd appears up ahead at the waterline. The sun in my eyes, I squint to focus. It looks like an immense sea animal, beached and decomposing, an elephant seal, a small whale.

I drop my bags and walk diagonally down the beach—a matter of a few steps—and continue along the water. As I approach the carcass I step over an orange life vest half buried in wet sand and realize those buoys offshore must be life vests too. Of course. Now my eyes make sense of the wreckage ahead: a half-deflated dinghy, its black rubber snout aground on the beach, stern wallowing in the shallows.

I find the dinghy’s aft section full of oily water. A red parka floats there, arms outstretched, amid empty water bottles, a plastic diaper and a few banknotes, maybe Syrian.

This vessel is no roomier than a large kiddie pool but will have ferried at least sixty people, reportedly the minimum the human smugglers will squeeze aboard.

I walk further. Another dinghy is half-submerged some distance out and drifting shoreward. On the tideline and in the shallows, more life jackets, water bottles, disposable diapers, a saturated hoodie, an infant soother, cigarette butts.

Two sodden workboots, the laces loose and weed-twined.

A map turning to gruel in a plastic sandwich bag.

A green headscarf, the clasp-pin still attached.

A tiny shoe with pink laces tied—surprisingly, since the sea is reputed to loosen and unknot everything, gradually undressing the drowned. Then again, any parent who has laced the shoes of a small child knows that you knot them with special care before embarking on a journey.

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Selected Poems 1983–2020


In those days the weather was jealous and would turn up at her house just to see what its cold winds could make of her face.

At her door she would be seen often speaking to each of the seasons in turn though with a marked preference (as many observed, and reported) for winter

which always stayed longest and left behind fading signs of its tenure aboveground.

Who among us up here wouldn’t want his love, her love to carry a trace that clear, that cold, stoic and austere, withdrawing to regain itself, then resurging?

What I wouldn’t do or undo (winter whispered in a voice akin to mine) to see one more time what my touch might make of your face.

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The Address Book

The Address Book

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The Shadow Boxer

Rye Island seems to lie at the heart of some meteorological singularity; the summer goes on freakishly hot, day after day the mercury reading five degrees higher than reported for the Soo. Is it a sign of global warming, that fever afflicting the planet as it sickens? Poisoned. But all that seems improbable here. Here time seems to be moving backwards, if it ever has moved; in late afternoon towering banks of cumulus mass over Superior and thunder rolls out of the west like rumblings of the Lost Herds in a late stampede. One day as he sits working, peripheral vision or some inscrutable instinct draws his attention outward. What looks like his father's vessel is passing a few miles south on a bearing for the Soo. He hurries onto the catwalk. Through binoculars the magical name Algonordic appears on a hull mottled with smuts of rust and blistering paint; despite the air's warmth the deck rail and coaming aisles are deserted and the glare of sunlight off the wheelhouse panes hides the occupants. He follows his father's crewless ship until it's lost to sight, a ghost ship like those medieval ones whose sailors succumbed to the Black Death and then drifted on unmanned for years, sometimes finding unlucky ports.

One night he wakes to a sound like sleet or freezing rain tapping at the windows. He opens his eyes and sits up. The grey floor like the parchment wall of a vespiary swirls with tiny shadows cast by moonlight while outside the stars seem to reel and spill and revolve as if the earth were plummeting through space. He leaps up and goes for the access door, left open for air. The water-blisters are swarming out of the northwest; the door faces southward but a few have gotten in. Stunned or dying, they rest on the bright floor of the light chamber, curled green tails twitching. He pulls the door shut and stands by his desk as they stream towards him thick as a blizzard or some biblical curse. You'd think they were flying straight out of the moon. In their millions they clip the windows and bounce off and hit again or veer around the tower or plunge out of sight. He sags into his chair and watches, mouth slack. He loses all sense of time. Then the blizzard thins out, abruptly ceases; the night world reappears; the catwalk is squirming with tiny shapes and the woods and calm lake are left seethingly active, larval in the moonlight. Dubious of his father's reports of fantastic evanescence, he tells himself he will explore in the morning, the insects will still be there. He wakes to a cool front scudding in from the west and finds the catwalk swept clean and the forest and the choppy waters purged, nothing left but a few papery husks on the light-chamber floor and on the shores a fading odour like rotten seaweed.


By August the turquoise waters of the cove are almost tepid. Sevigne has taken to crossing the cove--racing his shadow as it skims over the logs and cobbles twenty feet down--then pushing out through the narrows a dozen strokes into the usually unswimmable lake. One hot afternoon impulse and risk tempt him onward. He has an urge to cross the floating border like his father, and stand on US soil amid the fireweed and few skeletal trees of Nile. His body these days feels so strong and he so fully within it--an owner and not a tenant--he half believes he could swim to the Soo, and at first the cold of the open lake is exciting, and the extremes: when he breathes, the heat of the sun on his face and the rainbow shatter of light in his wet lashes, when he looks down, icy blackness pierced by auroral streamers receding into the depths. He is swimming through space above the northern lights--over Chagall's Vitebsk! Stars at elbow and foot. He's soaring. How could he have hoped for such elevation in the city? The disembodied city! When all joy, he feels now, even mental joy, is founded in the body.

In the channel between Rye and Nile, starting to feel deeply chilled, he enters a vein of water so cold that the first breath he draws there is broken and brings no air. It's water churned up from depths below the thermocline or blown in from mid-lake by the winds. He cranes his head up, looks around. Nile is farther out than he thought. He should turn back, but it isn't like him--as if somebody were waiting ahead on the shore, on every goddamned shore, stopwatch in hand, Wimp, come on, and he pushes on, striving to generate warmth, but the cold palsies his limbs and truncates his stroke and the winds funnelled through the strait churn up waves against him.

Soon he would gladly turn back but now Nile is closer than Rye and he'll take the closest shore. An eerie abatis of blackened timber rises from the depths to the islet's banks. He puts on a burst of speed and soon drags himself onto a slick, liver-like slab of rock marbled with streaks like dirty fat and lies there prone and gasping. He would stay there embracing the warm stone, letting the sun bake winter out of him, but the winds are chilling him further and his teeth won't stop chattering. Arms crossed over his chest he runs along the shore to the lee side. It's no good, even out of the wind his body is cooling. His throat is parched and a bitter paste of fear coats his tongue. Momentarily he has the wild notion of signalling a distant freighter for help, or of swimming out to the light-buoy pulsing red and to cling there like a limpet as if it could warm him, as if you could not possibly die in the embrace of such an artefact of human order. Like that hitch-hiker (Trubb again) on the Trans-Canada last winter. OPP found her clinging to a road sign--Sault Ste Marie 100 klicks--had to chip her off inch by inch.

He grits his teeth and with a running start dives in. A dozen strokes out, the full shock of it hits him. It's too cold to draw proper breath. He makes for the place on the south shore where the creek plunges a few feet over a ledge
and an exposed pine thrusts from a granite cleft. The west wind has made a harsh example of the tree. Gaunt limbs swept downwind, it seems to gesture with tragic defiance, a hunched old man declaiming a soliloquy to the wilderness.

Sevigne looks up for his mark. He has drifted off course, slapped east by the waves. Face swivelling upwind for breath he inhales mouthfuls of water; the big lake is aggressively alive. A strange, sly numbness begins creeping upward from his toes and down from the tips of his fingers, so in minutes his feet and hands are all but impervious to the water's bite. Then his ankles, wrists. A cold gangrene is bleeding inward to his vitals. He tries to cup fingers hard for a proper draw and flutter-kick with his feet but he can't feel them and he's slowing though he's working harder, millwheeling arms like a panicked novice. His forearms and calves are gone and now the anaesthesia reaches into his thighs; he can't be sure if his feet are still kicking. He fights on, buffeted by waves, eyes straining into the depths for any sign of shore. They say it's painless. When the numbness touches the heart, he thinks, and peers up: the contorted pine is close but his legs are sinking, only his arms working on, clutching and pulling at the water as if on a line tossed from the bank. Something unbalances him and he rises as if shoved from below. He tries to stand, sags back in, onto all fours. The shallows by the creekfall are cloudy and warm. He's spitting through chattering teeth, weakly laughing, groping his way in to shore. With the arthritic choppy steps of an old man he runs uphill along the creek within sight of the crosses at the meadow's edge and through the pine woods to the tower. In the light chamber he turns the heater to full, buries himself in his sleeping bag and blankets and lies shivering until dark, eating trail mix and sipping rye in hot sweetened milk.


The day the monarchs appear it's as if a low streak of windblown cirrus orange with sunset is approaching from the north under puffs of high cumulus, noon-white and becalmed. In the smoky warmth of Indian summer Sevigne, working with a plane on the warped front door of the house and thinking of Torrins, stops, the tool loose in his hand. This morning Dave Dawson reported the butterflies would be winging it south for Mexico over the Trans-Canada and Whitefish Bay, so drivers and boaters ought to keep their eyes peeled. Then, while an interviewer with a heavy cold snuffled in the background, a naturalist explained how in crossing the lake the monarchs would make a wide detour, each generation turning at exactly the same point. It was thought that perhaps they were retracing the flyway of prehistoric ancestors who'd had to steer around a mountain or a giant glacier. As the monarchs pass overhead he can see they're not flying in the solid formation Torrins once described; from far off their numbers only make it seem that way. In fact they're gradually dispersing, like long-distance runners spreading out over a course. A few stragglers loop low over the woods, wind-whirled autumn leaves, while others alight on Nile Islet as if fooled by the goldenrod flickering there like kin. Now it seems to Sevigne he understands their trajectory, that phantom detour, the obstacle once encountered, which--like an old flame or parent fought with and seemingly transcended--goes on exerting influence, nudging you towards the paths you believe you choose.

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The Stray and the Strangers

All too soon the boy and the two boat strangers were climbing aboard a rumbling bus.
Kanella stood beside the bearded man, who was kneeling and gripping her by the ruff.
“You stay here with us, Kanella. This is your home, for now. He and his family will have to travel on and find one for themselves.”
With panicked eyes she watched the bus door close. Why was the bearded man allowing the boy to leave the camp?
The boy’s round face appeared in a square window, the woman’s face behind his. As she waved, she smiled, but the boy did not.
A frantic squeal burst out of Kanella’s chest. She wrenched herself free and sprinted after the bus as it pulled out onto the road.

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Memos & Dispatches On Writing
also available: eBook
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I am not bored at the moment, though it might be better if I were. Boredom might mean I was lagging and loafing my way slowly toward a fresh jag of creative work, creative excitement—a poem, a story, the opening lines of a novel, lines that might lead anywhere, into the expectant offing, off the edge of the storyboard into a sandbox as vast as the Sahara. (I chose writing because I saw no reason that adults should ever cease to play.) Instead I‘m expending another day as a compliant, efficient functionary—earnest secretary to my own little career. (If you’ll excuse me, another email just blipped into view. I’m going to have to click and skim over, so I can glean that small, fleeting fix of satisfaction that comes from purging the inbox. A sense of accomplishment!—the ensuing narcotic calm!—that deeply licit, Lutheran drug our time–ridden culture starts pushing on us in kindergarten, or even sooner.)



I’m afraid that boredom, at least of a certain kind, may be disappearing from the world. And this potential truancy has me worried, partly for the sake of my daughter and her generation, but also—how unsurprising—for myself. Myself and other writers. I mean, the minute I get bored now I check my email. There’s often something new there—maybe something rewarding, a note from a friend, some news from my publisher. And if there’s nothing there, there’s the internet. For almost all of my writer friends it’s the same: like me, they constantly, casually lateralize into the digital realm. Some of them also have cable TV (I don’t), so if email, YouTube and other web excursions fail to gratify, they can surf a tsunami of channels. Or else play video games. Whatever. The issue here is screen media. The issue is that staring into space—in that musing, semi–bored state that can precede or help produce creative activity—is impossible when you keep interposing a screen between your seeing mind and the space beyond. The idea is to stare at nothing—to let nothingness permeate your field of vision, so the externally unstimulated mind revs down, begins to brood and muse and dream.

What a live screen presents is the opposite of nothing. The info and interactivity it proffers can be vital, instructive, entertaining, usefully subversive and other good things, but they also keep the mind in a state of hyperstimulation. All the neurological and anecdotal evidence backs up this claim.

The twenty–first century brain may be verging on the neural equivalent of adrenal collapse.



Just as an hour of boredom—of being at loose ends and staring into space—can serve as precursor to a child’s next spate of creative work/play ("work, " I write, because a young child’s profession is to play), so an adult’s month of brooding can open into a year of purposeful creativity.



Boredom is the laboratory where new enthusiasms ready themselves, beakers and test tubes bubbling quietly over Bunsen flames no larger than pilot lights, spectral figures in lab coats moving among them, speaking in hushed voices. Not one of these figures has the bored dreamer’s own face—the face the dreamer wears during the day.

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Beyond Forgetting

Beyond Forgetting

Celebrating 100 Years of Al Purdy
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Poems for All the Annettes

by Al Purdy
introduction by Steven Heighton
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An Anthology of Greek-Canadian Literature
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