The Man in the Tower

‘The Man in the Tower’ is part of a web of stories that depict the state of urban West Africa, in the ‘not-so-distant future’. The general idea is to create a portrait of urban West Africa as if current systems are to persist – for instance, the unequal distribution of wealth. With that general picture in place contemporary issues are evolved and discussed in the future context along with approaching confrontations with ecological collapse.

 

Chapter 1

Jeff stood in front of his bathroom mirror clutching his toothbrush and staring at nothing. Realising himself, he continued to brush his teeth.

Stroking from side to side about a dozen times. Then up and down another dozen. He spat the fizzy sweet-tasting paste into the basin and rinsed. The décor of his bathroom shun with sleek modernism. The sink, the showerhead, the ashy black floor tiles and even the toilet all spoke a language. Maybe French? Definitely something sophisticated. The toilet’s flush was actually quite impressive. Every time he finished shitting, a pleasant squirt of water would rinse his ass before his shit got washed away, never to be thought of again.

Thoroughly applying the Axe ‘vigilante’ gel, he fingered his scalp brutishly before slicking his hair back, then combing it all towards one side of his head. Just outside his bathroom door Scrappy, his little white fluffy dog, was fervently awaiting Jeff. Scrapping and snatching at his master’s ankles he followed Jeff to the bedroom. Jeff kicked his also white fluffy slippers underneath the bed, then unlaced his silk gown trotting over to the walking closet to pick an outfit for his Sunday stroll with Scrappy.

Walking his dog was always a fashionable moment for Jeff. In fact his SnapChat followers had accrued to over a 100,000 viewers all because of his sense of regal and sleek.

Wait.

He noticed that a shirt was missing. Yes! The purple low-cut v-neck. The one with the hanging shredded long sleeves. He considered where it could be. It was most likely his maid, Ama. Her sense was as broking as her English and Jeff thought that he should really call the agency and fire the fool.

Ah yes. The simple white long sleeve shirt was always a classic.

Wilfully wandering the acclaim he would receive from his SnapChat followers, he scanned the bottom deck of the walking closet to pull out his tea blue short-shorts. Ramming his short-shorts way up his waist then tucking in the white shirt, he grabbed his go-to boat shoes before picking Scrappy’s blinged-out collar.

Before leaving, Jeff yelled at Siri to inform him of the weather forecast for the day.

‘It will be perfect day today, in Accra! With temperatures ranging between 23-26 degrees Celsius. Some slight winds are to be expected!’

‘Mmmm. Can you message Dr Togbe, tell him I’m bringing Scrappy over right now.’

‘Sure Jeff! Do you need me for anything else?’

‘Make a note to remind me to ask Ama about my shirt. I keep on telling her to remind me when she is taking things out for laundry. It has happened now way too many times.’

‘Sorry. Did you mean to say ‘Unkempt telephones are my hobby’?’

‘What?! No. That will be all Siri.’

Chapter 2

‘God what a wonderful day!’ Jeff thought as he strutted down his gated community garden. Sure it was quite hot. But the fabric of his shirt was soft, and light, and incredible in all the ways a shirt can be. He was simply immune to the sun. He was immune to everything. No jab or insult thrown Jeff’s way would do him any wrong. A truly outstanding kind of obliviousness. He waved to the gardeners, who were too busy toiling on the ground and couldn’t pay him any notice.

Airport residential had become absurdly detached from the realities of bitter poverty and inequality ravaging Accra. So much so, the social bubble had bubbled up into the minds of the tenants. Lavish parties, soirees, libraries of cars, garages full of slave-workers, and sacks of money that was spent like nobody’s business.

Yes! The residences were in a champagne bubble – shiny, perfectly round, and delicate. Why not be? It’s better living without a care in the world! Living life like a motion picture.

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Anyway, Jeff had gone to one of those lavish parties the night before. Music and drugs were all on point. Ladies were fabulously dressed and the guys’ haircuts were as sharp as knives. Jeff had gone with his girl friends, Lana, Esi, Blair and Shevan. Those bitches got shit wasted and Jeff was forced to be the ‘responsible one’ for the rest of the night.

Dr Togbe’s house wasn’t far now and Jeff knew that he could maybe order a lite breakfast while waiting for Scrappy to get his checkup. Last time though, they were serving this traditional option called waakye. Black beans and rice, sultry spicy stew with shitto, topped with sautéed tofu. Hardly a lite breakfast but a mouth-watering one nonetheless.

He checked back with his phone to see if it was the next left, which he knew it was, but he always needed to check again. Ushering Scrappy onto the other side of the street they made their way up the front stairs of Dr Togbe’s clinic.

Chapter 3

Dr Togbe’s house/animal clinic had just had its walls plastered with pictures of all the adorable pets that had come to his clinic. Jeff leaned over the pleather chair to stare at the portraits. There was this one photo, which was just unbelievable. The owner had found a way to make it seem that his dog was holding him like newly weds do. Same silly smile as any bride would have and the groom sweeping under his face all bits of anxiety.

Before he realised how far deep his knees had sunk into the chair’s cushion, Dr Togbe had come out to greet Jeff with his usual sunny disposition.

‘Jeff! Got your message, how can I help you?’

‘Just a general checkup doctor, my little boy here Scrappy hasn’t been here for two months. You know I don’t want what happened to Ama Sam’s poodle to happen to Scrappy – isn’t that right Scrappy!!’

While Scrappy scratched and spat at the furniture of the lobby, Jeff and Dr Togbe finalised payments before the doctor took Scrappy into the back office for his checkup.

Jeff stood idle in the waiting room. He hadn’t had anything to eat since late last night with the girls. Summer was fast approaching as well. There was a need to keep his pudgy figure intact but leaner would be preferable. ‘The waakye though!’ he thought concedingly. When would he be here again?!

He strutted over to the cafeteria on the second floor/dining room to ask the chef if there was any waakye. But just before he got to the counter the chef pulled out a couple of takeaway packs, probably for some other patient. The aromas permeating the room were heavenly. Chewing the edge of his fingers Jeff realised that his fickle resilience to food would be broken once again this morning.

‘Please can I have a pack of waakye. Pasta, boiled egg, black pepper stew, fried plantain and some salad on the side please. Need to eat healthy right? But it’s for my friend anyway.’ The chef smiled and went to fetch Jeff’s order, returning in a matter of minutes smiling curiously. Jeff snatched the package and hopped back downstairs slightly embarrassed and overly aware of his tummy bouncing up and down with him.

Chapter 4

Scrappy was as snappy as ever by the time he was done with his checkup. Jeff and Dr. Togbe immersed themselves with some neighbourhood gossip before Jeff pardoned himself out of the office.

Jeff stepped out of the building and was met with the full force of a rushing wind all of sudden.

Checking his step and adjusting his feet he scooped Scrappy and pressed him to his chest.

‘What! – The Hell! – Is Going On?!’

The words that left his mouth never seemed to form fully as they were swept along with swooping and powerful gushes of wind. It was so ferocious, the wind, and it was uprooting the whole street in front of Jeff’s eyes. The stop sign pole had bent over and its plate was banging on the sidewalk. Plastic bags twirled high up in the sky and closer to the ground the earth was scattered across the street. There weren’t many people out because it was a Sunday, but you could hear wild screams from all corners of the neighbourhood as the buildings creaked to the force.

Jeff was incapacitated and seeking shelter in Dr Togbe’s office was the logical thing to do. But the urge in him to change his outfit was too strong to reason with. It looked too worn now and there were sweat patches at the armpits giving the white this awful piss-like stain. Going back was not an option. So he continued onward.

Each step felt like Jeff would be swept off his feet and Scrappy had sunk his nails deep into his shirt. After a while, Jeff could not think about how good he looked. He was too focused on trying to keep his centre of gravity as low and steady as possible. About half way to his apartment the relentless wind became somewhat bearable and he picked up his pace to a brisk jog. Panting and heaving desperately for breath he staggered into the lobby of The Magnificent.

‘Home! Finally, home. Sweet-sweet-safe-secure. Home. Jesus, Scrappy! Fucking calm down!’

By the time he was in the elevator and headed up to his room on the 79th floor, Jeff had regained some composure.

Deep breaths, that was the key! One… Two… Three…

All the way up, a hideous feeling was bubbling in his stomach. Each level the elevator climbed the more violently the building cringed. Scrappy was shivering, scratching and snapping all in one long annoying fit. Jeff was planning to dump him in his ‘bad dog’ hole where all Scrappy’s antics would be muted by the soundproof walls of his caged cubicle.

Lurch!

The building jerked sharply and Jeff lost his balance forcing Scrappy to leap from his falling hands. He slowly picked himself up. Trembling. Hoping that it been safe.

He managed to corner Scrappy after some time, and pet down his dog’s shaking fluff before the elevator stopped at his floor. Luckily, all of Jeff’s windows were shut and the wind had not menaced his apartment.

‘Siri! Turn on the TV to CNN: Ghana for me. Now! This can’t just be happening here!? Maybe it is something that is passing through? Siri didn’t you say it would be slight winds? Do you know what slight winds are?! Does it look like its slight winds!? Whatthehellisyouruseifyougivemefuckingstupidinformation?!’

‘Sorry Jeff. Would you like me to turn on the TV now?’

‘Yes! Yes! I just said!’

‘Sorry Jeff. Turning on TV to CNN: Ghana. The current conditions today are sunny and slightly windy.’

It was sunny, but Siri must have misinterpreted what ‘slightly’ meant and Jeff was in no mood to continue quarrelling with his phone again.

The two CNN: Ghana broadcasters (Katie Robinson and Jakob Lamptey) were sporting some ridiculous windbreakers and wearing foolish smiles as they joked about the unexpected wind.

‘Jakob, I guess we won’t be needing our plane tickets any more. We can just JUMP and FLY to Tamale.’

‘HAHAHAHAHAHA, wasn’t that funny guys?’

*Applause from studio audience*

‘Let us give it up to Katie Robinson. HAHAHA. I guess you won’t be needing a hairdryer either!’

‘HAHAHAHA. Oh MY GOD. Jakob you really BLOW me away.’

‘HHAHAHA. Aaah there is a tear in my eye. Let us give it up to Katie Robinson.’

*Applause from studio audience*

Jeff all of a sudden found the idea of mashing a comedy talk show with presenting news stupid and obnoxious. He had to watch for another thirty minutes before he got some actual details on what was happening with the weather in Accra that day.

Apparently, the winds were being caused by a sudden depression of cool air. As Jeff understood it, it was something of an extraordinary event. No weather channel had predicted this occurrence and the climatologists who were busy waving their pointers trying to explain something they didn’t quite get, looked confused and excited all at the same time. Finally, an official statement from the mayor of Accra deemed it unsafe for anyone to go outside. Jeff didn’t quite know what to make of the news but felt comfortable enough to saddle up for the night by making some hot cocoa and marshmallows and possibly a movie.

As he opened the tap to fill the kettle, a strong gush rocked the apartment building sending Jeff tumbling to the ground again. He could hear Scrappy squealing madly from his hole. But there was little Jeff could do. He would have to wait till the building stopped rocking before he could be sure of reaching Scrappy safely.

Realising the ridiculousness of the situation Jeff suddenly felt the gravity of it all weigh on him. He was literally stuck on the floor of his apartment shaking with fear over the possibility that the building might collapse! The apartment itself was falling apart. The kitchen appliances clanged and crashed as they fell onto the ashy tiles. White noise from the TV churned and crackled while the winds whistled and whipped outside. Glass décor fell over and shattered into millions of tiny little pieces.

Sharp shards flew across the floor to the corner where Jeff was cradling himself.

Soft tears were creeping down his cheeks. Staring only at the floor, he hoped for it to be over soon.

Chapter 5

Ama knew it was late. She was also terrified at the thought of having to walk through the storm of winds lashing outside on the streets of Accra. But if she didn’t return Jeff’s shirt she would surely be fired and that will make it even harder for her to get another job to support her family. She found a collection of items in the recycling bin of her neighbourhood that looked like it could deflect the winds.

Wrapping herself in rubbery textured trash she felt unbelievably stupid. But failure to deliver the shirt could lead to unthinkable disaster for her and her family. Tightening her belt over her makeshift wind suit Ama was ready for the worse.

Initially, Ama seriously considered turning back. But after a while the winds seemed to just zoom past, over and underneath her. She would sometimes walk sideways to be even more aerodynamic and other times she would lie flat on the ground and sort of crawl onwards. After weaving through the narrow side streets and walkways Ama could see Jeff’s apartment a-way-away.

It was swaying.

She could see it bending?

Like a cartoon almost.

Ama stood still watching the monstrosity of the apartment building swing back and forth. Buckling at frightening angles. Twisting impossibly.

An incredible burst of wind suddenly caught underneath Ama and she felt its force rise up. The pulse of nature was pounding on her eardrums and there was an unbelievable pressure weighing on her immediate surroundings. She quickly bent down to stop herself from being caught in the current that was sweeping over the whole world it seemed! Recovering from the rush she looked back up.

The top half of the apartment was hanging at a perfect right angle. She could see large metallic beams break from the building’s failing structure as the wind punched and beat it to submission.

It balanced for a moment as the wind withdrew from its onslaught.

There was no sound but the moans of the squirming metal.

The sun was now cast at sunset.

The silhouette of the building made for an odd horizon.

A collective breath being drawn.

Then it dived down.

Descending with a jarring metallic tear the building crashed into the ground. The crash split the world in two and tore the world around Ama into shreds. She found herself behind a wall, crouched but shaking with fear and disbelief. She could feel clouds of dust blast past her, tossing and ripping anything that was caught in its wrath.

Compacting herself, her hand clutched on to something soft in her wind suit. She absent-mindedly pulled out a shirt. It was Jeff’s shirt. The one with the horrid sleeves. She tied the arms together and wrapped the top around her face to shield her eyes from the wind. The mist of sand and debris was still difficult to manoeuvre, and the air was difficult to breathe. But she decided to trek back home regardless. It was the only thing she could do amidst the tower’s wreckage.

Answering the Call of the Wild Spadefoots

Finding water-loving amphibians in the hot, dry Arizona desert seems unlikely, but there they are. At our Sonoran Desert acre outside of Tucson we’ve seen the big old Sonoran Desert Toad (Bufo alvarius), the Sonoran Green Toad (Bufo retiformis), an occasional Red-Spotted Toad (Bufo punctatus), and the not-toad Couch’s Spadefoot (Scaphiopus couchii). The Spadefoot is really a frog, with smoother skin than true toads.

The Sonoran Desert gets some rain in the winter, and monsoon storms in the summer. The native Tohono O’odham call the gentle winter rain female, and the intense summer thunderstorms male rain. Global warming seems to have made for smaller and more intense storm cells. It has flooded less than a half-mile away while our place – we call it Wild Heart Ranch – remains completely dry. By late July 2016, this season’s official total rainfall at the Tucson Airport measuring station was 2.67 inches, with much more in some areas. At Wild Heart we recorded just 6/10th of an inch, with a long spell of 105-110-degree days.

That has noticeably affected our toad population. When we accumulated that meagre total on June 30th and July 1st we were glad to hear the distinctive Spadefoot mating call, a loud, grating quaaaackkk, and to find a male and two females in our little artificial pond on July 2nd.

2-Looking for Love

Spadefoots have adapted to the desert by digging deep into the sand, using the ‘spade’ on their rear feet, and waiting for the vibrations of rainfall to waken them. They find puddles, call for mates, and get together quickly, the male hugging the female and spraying sperm over her eggs as she excretes them. The process moves incredibly fast.

3-Mating

On July 3rd there were strings of jelly-like eggs, thousands of them, in the pond. On July 4th there were hundreds of tiny tadpoles. I boiled romaine lettuce to simulate algae for their food, and they were voracious eaters. In two days, by July 5th, they had doubled in size. I took about 50 over to the Picture Rocks Community Center for their kids’ programmes to observe, with coordinator Adam Bernal taking on the lettuce-cooking chores at his end.

4-Tadpoles

By July 13th a number of the tadpoles had sprouted hind legs and a few even had tiny front legs as well. I divided them into five groups with containers and set them out in shaded garden areas with rocks for an escape route and latticed covers to keep predators out. Pollywog predators in this neighbourhood could include some birds and insects, and that big gluttonous Sonoran Desert Toad, of which there were a couple around. Fortunately our dog, Gus, avoids them, even when they occupy his water dish. They can be toxic to dogs.

5-Sonoran Desert Toad

By July 18th virtually all of the 60 or 70 tadpoles were metamorphosing and had four legs. They still had tails which propelled them to the lettuce, and they seemed quite happy. Metamorphoses as short as nine days have been recorded, with an average of two weeks, so we were right on schedule. Other frogs and toads outside of the desert take up to twelve weeks to make the transition.

6-Morphing

On July 19th most of the Spadefoots now appeared to have four legs and to have absorbed most of their tails. They still swam, but also hopped, covering an amazing distance for their still-tiny size, no larger than a short fingernail. It was just about time for liberation.

7-Ready to Go!

On July 20 I went to release the toadlets but the Pollywog Liberation Front had beat me to it. A light rain overnight had sent all but a few of the tiny Spadefoots out into the world. They were all in shaded and well-watered gardens where they could find tiny bugs to feed on. They would gorge themselves and dig down to grow and wait for the next storm, whether it came this year or next.

At the community centre Adam directed the release of his toadlets into protected park areas with the kids all participating. For some reason, perhaps related to sun and shade, those tadpoles took about a week longer to morph.

Maybe we had taken a small step to combat the ravages of climate change, to repopulate our little piece of our world. We had no idea how many would survive, but I’m looking forward to monsoon season 2017 to find out. At age 78, it gives me something more to live for.

Self-Preservation in Our Protected Places

Oh ye mythic landscapes of growing fame. Oh ye badlands of terrestrial divinity. You haunt me. You break my heart. I know this, for certain, because I’ve been attempting to read Terry Tempest Williams’ latest book, The Hour of Land – a proclaimed personal topography of America’s national parks – yet I get a few pages in and put in down. A few pages in, put it down. I can’t do it, as much as I admire the prose; as much as I cherish the content. It’s too painful – a haunt, a broken heart – because America’s national parks have become too personal to my own topography.

Six years ago I set the goal of visiting all the US national parks – a goal not borne out of a desire to become Instagram famous, or to sell feature articles to major magazines, or even to have a unique bragging right – but a goal generated by happenstance: I coincidentally found myself living on the border of Rocky Mountain National Park the same summer my best friend died in a terrorist attack in Kampala, Uganda (being there to visit friends while working for the same non-profit where we’d met). To cope with the loss, and my already compounding clinical depression, I withdrew, finding solace only across that national park boundary. I began going on hikes every free moment I had; began reading extensive books on the wilderness I now found myself within. Nature held the fundamental truths I needed to start reconstructing a dismantled psyche damaged by all the transgressions a civilised world permits: violations of civil, humanitarian, and environmental rights. And the more I learned about nature, the more I learned about myself.

To prove this, I made a drive down to Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado.

It was equally as stunning as Rocky Mountain National Park, yet unique in its own geological splendour. I needed to see more. So that fall I moved to California and began planning a new adventure for every weekend, filling my car with anyone curious enough to accompany me: Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Channel Islands, Saguaro.

I have since been to fifty-one of the fifty-nine US national parks, from the rainforests of American Samoa to the taiga of central Alaska.

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Yellowstone National Park

In hindsight, my progression with the goal oddly mirrors the history of the park system itself. Initially, the national parks were proposed by dignitaries as an attempt to solidify our fledgling country’s sense of autonomous pride, because, at the time, we couldn’t compete with Europe in terms of architecture, or legacy, or the arts. But we had natural wonders without comparison – first seen at Niagara Falls, then the Yosemite Valley, then Yellowstone. We began building an identity around this.

I, too, was searching for a sense of pride. Or self-worth. And I felt this restlessness while traversing glacier-cut terrain or water-deplete deserts or volcanic depressions. I was re-learning how to identify myself.

Next came monumentalism, or this idea that we, as a country, only needed to protect the most indisputable of terrain: deep valleys, geothermal plateaus, massive trees. I, too, was first drawn to these parks of notoriety: I wanted to stand before El Capitan, I wanted to hug a sequoia, I wanted to dip my toes in Cater Lake. But this is only the honeymoon phase of becoming a naturalist: love starts with the obvious then cuts to the idiosyncratic.

An example: about sixty years after Yellowstone was established as the first national park in the world, the Everglades also joined that roster of federal designation. This was an interesting occasion because Everglades National Park was the first park protected for the primary purpose of environmentalism – for ecological preservation. And we see this as a shift away from monumentalism in the way that the Everglades’ watersheds were also considered for protection, from Big Cypress National Preserve up to Lake Okeechobee. A more holistic consideration was at work here: plots of land no longer needed a Teton-like range to turn congressional heads; a river of grass, in Southern Florida, could now demand similar respect.

I, too, began understanding that environmental consciousness meant more than just visiting the famous parks and pointing my camera lens at them. I began looking at all land differently: from wilderness areas created by the 1964 act, to national forests, to wildflowers across the Bridger Range of my backyard, to my mother’s garden.
Something more holistic was at work within me, too.

***

The national parks saved my life. I’m not saying this in a ‘these are the most pristine places on the planet’ sort of way. Or even in a ‘nature heals’ sort of way. They were just my target of attention at a time of need: a goal set during ultimate tribulation, giving myself arbitrary trajectory, which then gave me a reason to push through the existential darkness of a faith lost in humanity. It was submerging myself in nature, away from my fellow companions, that made me re-realise there is good in us, and hope, and unabated kindness.

This was my new lens to analyse the world through, finding logic that ran deeper than my mental illness, and yet, was so intimately intertwined within it—an individual ecosystem of sorts, everything contingent on the other.

So here I sit, Williams’ book at my side, containing 395 pages of stories that I want to read, yet, I’m reluctant. These parks are mine. I’ve wrapped my ego around them. Found salvation within them. And defend them like I would my own children. Still, funny enough, it’s hard to see someone else celebrate them. But that’s the ultimate beauty of public land: These parks are mine. They’re everyone else’s too. For whatever purpose – everyday or epic – that they need to serve.

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Kenai Fjords National Park

Last, or Earworms in the Wilderness

Edges are where things get interesting. They are where transitions happen — or don’t happen — from one state to another. Ethnic assimilation, for instance, is an edge state, where you’re neither fish nor fowl, and you have to navigate for yourself how much of which culture you want to take on when and with whom. The fringes of urban areas are another edge, where wild animals like coyotes and ravens live amidst humans.

I wrote the novel Last to explore edges. I made my protagonist, Last, a creature who belongs nowhere. He’s a sasquatch who was orphaned young and raised in the woods by a human woman (Clare). Not only does he have no companions or peers, he’s not even a proper sasquatch because he was raised by a human, is culturally human, speaks American Sign Language, and in his mind he’s half human. He can’t remember his native language, native culture, or even what his parents looked like. So Last is in this horrible limbo state where he is the only one in the world like himself. No longer a child, he wants friends, he wants a mate. He wants to find a place where he belongs. So he’s on a walkabout and crisscrossing the wilderness in his home state of Maine, looking for other sasquatches, although he suspects the species has gone extinct (hence the name he calls himself, Last).

Clare’s ex-boyfriend Nils is a failed biologist who wants to make his name by releasing film, sound and DNA evidence on Last. When he learned that Last had left for a walkabout, he shot him with a tranquiliser gun and fitted him with a radio collar

 

Last awakens from thirst. He is still groggy. Around his neck is a new constriction and weight.

He is wearing a radio collar. He cannot get it off. He feels for its mechanism but cannot figure it out.

From now, his every movement will be tracked.

He does not know this. He just knows he has something on him that is a man thing and that means no good. But there is nothing he can do about it.

He picks himself up and walks in a direction he hasn’t tried before. He goes south.

***

Where to find the Others? He follows the winding trout streams in the general direction south. Skirting lake after lake, bog after bog, walking the deer trails from mountain to mountain. He travels from dusk to dawn, sings the songs he remembers from Clare’s iTunes collection. He can’t make the words but he can sing the melodies.

No-one answers.

The wind picks up. From far in the distance, he hears a rhythmic banging. A vaguely familiar banging, a sound from childhood, a sound from before thoughts could be put into words.

He follows the banging. The People, that’s how they called each other. They banged, and you knew where to find them. The banging continues, bang! bang! bang! and he chases the sound.

He imagines them, a family who looks like him. He imagines them alone and lonely, and delighted to meet another like them when they are so few.

He imagines smiles of welcome. Outstretched arms.

He runs to this vision as fast as he can until his breath comes ragged and he has a cramp in his chest.

And then he sees it, the broken branch knocking against a trunk, hanging by its inner bark as if from a hinge.

The wind sighs and it bangs.

He comes to a stop and drops to his knees.

***

There is nothing to do but to go on.

The collar has a heavy box that chafes and it is wearing away the hair on his neck. He holds it as he walks, because his collarbone has begun to bleed.

And then he stops holding it, and just keeps walking on.

***

At night, all he hears is crickets. He calls out to the Others, as he had called as child in the swamp.

No response. Maybe if he travels farther south…

Sometimes he hears the high-pitched yip of a coyote, also calling with no response.

He travels farther, and he still hears that coyote. It is as though they are travelling together, a mile apart.

At dawn he sees the silhouette of a coyote loping on the ridge.

She is so skinny he can see the points of her vertebrae. Pointy nose, pointy ears, spiked hair, she is all points. She trots on.

Full sun, from a hilltop. He sees her hunting mice in the meadow below. She listens, head cocked. Listens, listens. Then pounces with her forelegs, grabs the mouse with her teeth and whips her head from side to side.

Mouse neck snaps.

She slits the skin and unzips the flesh, crunches it down in a few bites, and then resumes listening.

Last admires the coyote’s practiced, efficient technique. In his mind, he calls her MouseBreath.

Listening, head cocked, silent trot, listening for hours, earning each bite. This is a coyote down on her luck, working hard, and hungry.

***

It is getting late in the season but the trout are still running. Last keeps an eye out for people and stands in a good stream, awaiting fish.

Cold feet.

Claws would help. Sometimes he grabs a fish just as it swims between his
legs, but his numb fingers move too slowly, fish gone.

Slippery.

He remembers, I used to be good at this. What happened? Farmed food? He keeps at it, grabs the next trout and flips it onto the bank, where it flaps, gasps, and expires.

Little brookie. All bones.

He eats his raw trout and tries again. It does not take long. Another trout on the bank, and as he wades out of the water he sees the coyote watching, pacing the opposite bank. He knows, she wants his fishing spot.

He eats his fish, then goes back into the water, squats down, looks the coyote in the eye, and cocks his head to a spot downstream.

She hesitates.

He cocks his head again, eyes the spot, and then resumes fishing and ignores her.

The next he looks, she is standing in the water downstream, waiting patiently. Last scoops up a trout and lets another slip between his legs.

She plunges her face in the water and grabs it, all teeth. Then she raises her head, fish flapping, and proudly climbs up onto the bank to eat.

She catches Last’s eye and smiles her coyote smile: ears back, hair down. Last
smiles back his ape grimace.

They fish on, separate but together.

***

She follows closer now. At night, they call out, Last to his people in the language he remembers, which is the baby talk of a five-year old. The coyote calls to her people in her language — high-pitched yips and half-howls. No sasquatch answers, no coyote answers. But the call of each, through the night, is a sort of answer. Another found, not kin but kind.

***

In the woods, MouseBreath lopes as silently as fog.

Last struggles to keep up with her. But they are friends now. She doubles back to him, scouts forward, doubles back.

Soon she tires of travelling three times his distance, and she waits for him when he is out of sight. The coyote sits in the bushes or in the tall grass and listens, aware of everything around her.

After one of these forays, Last finds her sniffing the ground, skittish. She stops him with a look, looks at the ground, directs his eyes.

A loop of wire, a tree bent to the ground. Snare.

She trots off the trail, drags over a rotted branch, drops it on the wire.

The tree snaps up, carrying the branch with it. It dangles high in the air.

Last marvels and has new respect for the coyote.

They trot on.

Another day she stops to show him a big slab of rock. One end is on the ground, against a log. Underneath one end is open, and at the opening, a piece of cheese. But through the cheese, a twig, and the twig supports the rock by a
precarious balance.

Now it is Last’s turn. With a found branch, he bats the cheese, stick and all, out before the rock crashes down. They grin at each other and split the cheese.

Friends for life.

They come upon a fox with a leg caught in a steel trap. The fox whines and gnashes at them. Its eyes are bloodshot. It has tried to chew off its leg and has only gotten part through.

The coyote trots past. She has no intention of stopping.

Last sees the panic in the fox’s eyes and can’t leave. MouseBreath rounds a turn and is gone. Last has never seen a steel trap before. He has faith he could figure it out. He pulls at this and that.

On the hilltop, just the points of the coyote’s ears are visible, as she watches and waits.

A crunch of gravel. Axe in hand, a trapper walks along the trail, breathing heavily from his exertion.

The coyote yips.

Last freezes. The fox struggles. The birds go silent, the only sound the footfalls of the man.

Having no better ideas, Last pries open the jaws of the trap. The fox jumps away and bites him, hard. He lets go of the trap and it snaps shut.

The man’s head snaps towards the sound.

The fox runs away on three legs.

Last looks back in the direction of the man and hurries up the trail towards MouseBreath.

The trapper fires on Last but misses. And then Last is gone.

***

Last catches up with MouseBreath, who is still waiting for him. He holds out his arm, to show that he is has been bitten. MouseBreath licks the wound.

***

They come to a highway. The sun glares low in the sky and orange light glints on the metal machines that rush past.

All sounds are drowned out by the roar of the cars and trucks, and all smells are drowned out by the stench of their breath. Faster than the fastest animal, the machines follow nose to butt, with scarcely a gap between.

The trail continues on the other side. Last and MouseBreath have to get to the other side. And the machines are in the way. Last has no idea how to cross. The sky turns red, then purple, then gray. MouseBreath looks up and down the highway. She catches Last’s eye: watch how it’s done. She crouches low, wiggles her butt in the air, and takes off. Weaving through the traffic, she runs as fast as she can.

The cars do not slow.

At about 80mph, a truck hits her and she flies up into the air. The truck passes underneath.

Then she crashes to the pavement and the car behind rolls over her, BUMP bump, front wheels then rear wheels.

The next car doesn’t even swerve. BUMP bump.

Afterwards, the cars that follow, the bumps grow softer, as MouseBreath spreads out over the pavement.

Last hears screaming. It goes on and on. He realises he is the one screaming, and stops.

***

The light empties out, sucked into the machines’ glowing white eyes and red butts. And into the night, they hiss along the highway and exhale filth.

Last stands by the side of the road, a black hulk against the black forest, because he does not know what to do.

Flashbacks: his mother has just died, his father has just died, he is a little boy alone in the wilderness. He calls and calls and no-one answers. He is hungry and lonely and tired and no-one comes.

The emptiness, the despair, the panic of his abandonment comes upon him now with the full force of repetition.

He understands wordlessly that he is alone in the world and there is no help for it. It is dark, and his friend is spread out all over a highway, killed for no reason, and he has no home and no people, and his heart is broken.

***

When he comes to himself, he notices the cars are gone. The moon is high, and he can see the expanse of MouseBreath spread across the pavement.

Last had not known about such things as rush hour, or the fact that a highway empties out in the middle of the night. Now he knows. The middle of the night is the safe time to travel.

He walks out onto the empty highway and scrapes MouseBreath off the asphalt. She comes away in pieces. He gathers the pieces together and lays them in the woods, on the far side of the highway, at the base of a fir.

Ravens will do the rest.

The Mourner’s song. He remembers there was a Mourner’s song. He still doesn’t remember how it goes.

A tune passes through his head, and he hears words he understands but can’t pronounce:

Underneath the bridge
the tarp has sprung a leak
and the animals I’ve trapped
have all become my pets
and I’m living off of grass
and the drippings from the ceiling
but it’s OK to eat fish
‘cause they don’t have any feelings.
Something in the way. Oo-ooh.
Something in the way, yeah. Oo-ooh.

For some reason, this reminds him of his father’s tumour and the stench of the paper mill.

Something wrong, something messing up his life, something bigger than him, something he can’t fix.

Something in the way.

***

They watch the blip on the screen. Beep. Beep. Beep.

‘He made it across the highway,’ says Nils.

Clare breathes, ‘Thank God.’

***

Day by day the air grows colder. Now he walks north, into the cold wind. The oaks drop their leaves. The ground is covered with acorns. Squirrels are busy in the trees. Last bites into the acorn from a red oak and it’s so bitter he can’t get it down. He remembers he had eaten a lot of acorns as a child but he doesn’t know how his mother made them.

The whitetails are rutting.

Too big for the little stones he throws with precision. That leaves squirrels, woodchucks, partridge. He eats them raw and misses cooked food. He misses the underground cabin, warmth, and Clare.

He fails to bring down wild turkeys. He fails to bring down deer. He has been eating farmed food too long and has forgotten how to hunt.

The first few flakes of snow dust a landscape queerly silent. Overhead, a dozen geese fly with military precision.

Too high to hit.

Skinny Last is starving. He is lightheaded all the time now. He’s cold.

He sings as he walks, sometimes Nirvana, but mostly the Stones ‘Miss You’.

Ooh hoo, hoo-hoo.
Ooh hoo, hoo-hoo.
Oo-oo hoo-hoo.

Who does he miss? People he’s never met.

On the horizon balsam firs. He walks towards them. Underneath, deer scat and not a sound.

The snow comes down in earnest. White ground, gray sky, black line of trees in the distance. Behind him, his own footprints stretch back forever.

He can’t feel his toes.

He searches for tracks, shrivelled apples, berries, anything to eat. He is dizzy.

He is afraid he will starve to death. He is alone, and this brings up the memory from his childhood of wandering lost and alone and cold and hungry, of calling out until he is hoarse, of no answer, no answer, no answer. He is that scared five-year old orphan again, lost in his memories, seeing nothing before him.

His feet hurt from the cold and the pain brings him back to the present.

There is nothing to do but to keep on keeping on. He signs to himself while he walks. He sings the songs that go through his head. Oo-hoo-hoo-hoo. Oo-hoo-hoo-hoo. And then the tune, because he can’t make the words: ‘Lord I miss you.’

Then one day, someone sings back.