Read an Excerpt
The Hermit’s Story
An ice storm, following seven days of snow; the vast fields and drifts of snow turning to sheets of glazed ice that shine and shimmer blue in the moonlight, as if the color is being fabricated not by the bending and absorption of light but by some chemical reaction within the glossy ice; as if the source of all blueness lies somewhere up here in the norththe core of it beneath one of those frozen fields; as if blue is a thing that emerges, in some parts of the world, from the soil itself, after the sun goes down.
Blue creeping up fissures and cracks from depths of several hundred feet; blue working its way up through the gleaming ribs of Ann’s buried dogs; blue trailing like smoke from the dogs’ empty eye sockets and nostrilsblue rising as if from deep-dug chimneys until it reaches the surface and spreads laterally and becomes entombed, or trappedbut still alive, and driftingwithin those moonstruck fields of ice.
Blue like a scent trapped in the ice, waiting for some soft release, some thawing, so that it can continue spreading.
It’s Thanksgiving. Susan and I are over at Ann and Roger’s house for dinner. The storm has knocked out all the power down in townit’s a clear, cold, starry night, and if you were to climb one of the mountains on snowshoes and look forty miles south toward where town lies, instead of seeing the usual small scatterings of lightlike fallen stars, stars sunken to the bottom of a lake, but still glowingyou would see nothing but darknessa bowl of silence and darkness in balance for once with the mountains up here, rather than opposing or complementing our darkness, our peace.
As it is, we do not climb up on snowshoes to look down at the dark townthe power lines dragged down by the clutches of icebut can tell instead just by the way there is no faint glow over the mountains to the south that the power is out: that this Thanksgiving, life for those in town is the same as it always is for us in the mountains, and it is a good feeling, a familial one, coming on the holiday as it doesthough doubtless too the townspeople are feeling less snug and cozy about it than we are.
We’ve got our lanterns and candles burning. A fire’s going in the stove, as it will all winter long and into the spring. Ann’s dogs are asleep in their straw nests, breathing in that same blue light that is being exhaled from the skeletons of their ancestors just beneath and all around them. There is the faint smell of cold-storage meatslabs and slabs of itcoming from down in the basement, and we have just finished off an entire chocolate pie and three bottles of wine. Roger, who does not know how to read, is examining the empty bottles, trying to read some of the words on the labels. He recognizes the words the and in and USA. It may be that he will never learn to readthat he will be unable tobut we are in no rush; he has all of his life to accomplish this. I for one believe that he will learn.
Ann has a story for us. It’s about a fellow named Gray Owl, up in Canada, who owned half a dozen speckled German shorthaired pointers and who hired Ann to train them all at once. It was twenty years ago, she saysher last good job.
She worked the dogs all summer and into the autumn, and finally had them ready for field trials. She took them back up to Gray Owlway up in Saskatchewandriving all day and night in her old truck, which was old even then, with dogs piled up on top of one another, sleeping and snoring: dogs on her lap, dogs on the seat, dogs on the floorboard.
Ann was taking the dogs up there to show Gray Owl how to work them: how to take advantage of their newfound talents. She could be a sculptor or some other kind of artist, in that she speaks of her work as if the dogs are rough blocks of stone whose internal form exists already and is waiting only to be chiseled free and then released by her, beautiful, into the world.
Basically, in six months the dogs had been transformed from gangling, bouncing puppies into six wonderful hunters, and she needed to show their owner which characteristics to nurture, which ones to discourage. With all dogs, Ann said, there was a tendency, upon their leaving her tutelage, for a kind of chitinous encrustation to set in, a sort of oxidation, upon the dogs leaving her hands and being returned to someone less knowledgeable and passionate, less committed than she. It was as if there were a tendency for the dogs’ greatness to disappear back into the stone.
So she went up there to give both the dogs and Gray Owl a checkout session. She drove with the heater on and the windows down; the cold Canadian air was invigorating, cleanerr. She could smell the scent of the fir and spruce, and the damp alder and cottonwood leaves beneath the many feet of snow. We laughed at her when shhhhhe said it, but she told us that up in Canada she could taste the fish in the water as she drove alongside creeks and rivers.
She got to Gray Owl’s around midnight. He had a little guest cabin but had not heated it for her, uncertain as to the day of her arrival, so she and the six dogs slept together on a cold mattress beneath mounds of elk hides: their last night together. She had brought a box of quail with which to work the dogs, and she built a small fire in the stove and set the box of quail next to it.
The quail muttered and cheeped all night and the stove popped and hissed and Ann and the dogs slept for twelve hours straight, as if submerged in another time, or as if everyone else in the world were submerged in timeand as if she and the dogs were pioneers, or survivors of some kind: upright and exploring the present, alive in the world, free of that strange chitin.
She spent a week up there, showing Gray Owl how his dogs worked. She said he scarcely recognized them afield, and that it took a few days just for him to get over his amazement. They worked the dogs both individually and, as Gray Owl came to understand and appreciate what Ann had crafted, in groups. They traveled across snowy hills on snowshoes, the sky the color of snow, so that often it was like moving through a dream, and, except for the rasp of the snowshoes beneath them and the pull of gravity, they might have believed they had ascended into some sky-place where all the world was snow.
They worked into the windnorthwhenever they could. Ann would carry birds in a pouch over her shoulder and from time to time would fling a startled bird out into that dreary, icy snowscape. The quail would fly off with great haste, a dark feathered buzz bomb disappearing quickly into the teeth of cold, and then Gray Owl and Ann and the dog, or dogs, would go find it, following it by scent only, as always.
Snot icicles would be hanging from the dogs’ nostrils. They would always find the bird. The dog, or dogs, would point it, Gray Owl or Ann would step forward and flush it, and the beleaguered bird would leap into the sky again, and once more they would push on after it, pursuing that bird toward the horizon as if driving it with a whip. Whenever the bird wheeled and flew downwind, they’d quarter away from it, then get a mile or so downwind from it and push it back north.
When the quail finally became too exhausted to fly, Ann would pick it up from beneath the dogs’ noses as they held point staunchly, put the tired bird in her game bag, and replace it with a fresh one, and off they’d go again. They carried their lunch in Gray Owl’s daypack, as well as emergency suppliesa tent and some dry clothesin case they should become lost, and around noon each day (they could rarely see the sun, only an eternal ice-white haze, so that they relied instead only on their internal rhythms) they would stop and make a pot of tea on the sputtering little gas stove. Sometimes one or two of the quail would die from exposure, and they would cook that on the stove and eat it out there in the tundra, tossing the feathers up into the wind as if to launch one more flight, and feeding the head, guts, and feet to the dogs.
Seen from above, their tracks might have seemed aimless and wandering rather than with the purpose, the focus that was burning hot in both their and the dogs’ hearts. Perhaps someone viewing the tracks could have discerned the pattern, or perhaps not, but it did not matter, for their tracksthe patterns, direction, and tracing of themwere obscured by the drifting snow, sometimes within minutes after they were laid down.
Toward the end of the week, Ann said, they were finally running all six dogs at once, like a herd of silent wild horses through all that snow, and as she would be going home the next day there was no need to conserve any of the birds she had brought, and she was turning them loose several at a time: birds flying in all directions; the dogs, as ever, tracking them to the ends of the earth.
It was almost a whiteout that last day, and it was hard to keep track of all the dogs. Ann was sweating from the exertion as well as the tension of trying to keep an eye on, and evaluate, each dog, and the sweat was freezing on her as if she were developing an ice skin. She jokingly told Gray Owl that next time she was going to try to find a client who lived in Arizona, or even South America. Gray Owl smiled and then told her that they were lost, but no matter, the storm would clear in a day or two.
They knew it was getting near duskthere was a faint dulling to the sheer whiteness, a kind of increasing heaviness in the air, a new density to the faint light around themand the dogs slipped in and out of sight, working just at the edges of their vision.
The temperature was dropping as the north wind increased“No question about which way south is,” Gray Owl said, “so we’ll turn around and walk south for three hours, and if we don’t find a road, we’ll make camp”and now the dogs were coming back with frozen quail held gingerly in their mouths, for once the birds were dead, the dogs were allowed to retrieve them, though the dogs must have been puzzled that there had been no shots. Ann said she fired a few rounds of the cap pistol into the air to make the dogs think she had hit those birds. Surely they believed she was a goddess.
They turned and headed southAnn with a bag of frozen birds over her shoulder, and the dogs, knowing that the hunt was over now, once again like a team of horses in harness, though wild and prancy.
After an hour of increasing discomfortAnn’s and Gray Owl’s hands and feet numb, and ice beginning to form on the dogs’ paws, so that the dogs were having to high-stepthey came in day’s last light to the edge of a wide clearing: a terrain that was remarkable and soothing for its lack of hills. It was a frozen lake, which meantsaid Gray Owlthey had drifted west (or perhaps east) by as much as ten miles.
Ann said that Gray Owl looked tired and old and guilty, as would any host who had caused his guest some unasked-for inconvenience. They knelt down and began massaging the dogs’ paws and then lit the little stove and held each dog’s foot, one at a time, over the tiny blue flame to help it thaw out.
Gray Owl walked out to the edge of the lake ice and kicked at it with his foot, hoping to find fresh water beneath for the dogs; if they ate too much snow, especially after working so hard, they’d get violent diarrhea and might then become too weak to continue home the next day, or the next, or whenever the storm quit.
Ann said that she had barely been able to see Gray Owl’s outline through the swirling snow, even though he was less than twenty yards away. He kicked once at the sheet of ice, the vast plate of it, with his heel, then disappeared below the ice.
Ann wanted to believe that she had blinked and lost sight of him, or that a gust of snow had swept past and hidden him, but it had been too fast, too total: she knew that the lake had swallowed him. She was sorry for Gray Owl, she said, and worried for his dogsafraid they would try to follow his scent down into the icy lake and be lost as wellbut what she had been most upset about, she saidto be perfectly honestwas that Gray Owl had been wearing the little daypack with the tent and emergency rations. She had it in her mind to try to save Gray Owl, and to try to keep the dogs from going through the ice, but if he drowned, she was going to have to figure out how to try to get that daypack off of the drowned man and set up the wet tent in the blizzard on the snowy prairie and then crawl inside and survive. She would have to go into the water naked, so that when she came back outif she came back outshe would have dry clothes to put on.
The dogs came galloping up, seeming as large as deer or elk in that dim landscape against which there was nothing else to give the viewer a perspective, and Ann whoaed them right at the lake’s edge, where they stopped immediately, as if they had suddenly been cast with a sheet of ice.
Ann knew the dogs would stay there forever, or until she released them, and it troubled her to think that if she drowned, they too would diethat they would stand there motionless, as she had commanded them, for as long as they could, until at some pointdays later, perhapsthey would lie down, trembling with exhaustionthey might lick at some snow, for moisturebut that then the snows would cover them, and still they would remain there, chins resting on their front paws, staring straight ahead and unseeing into the storm, wondering where the scent of her had gone.
Ann eased out onto the ice. She followed the tracks until she came to the jagged hole in the ice through which Gray Owl had plunged. She was almost half again lighter than he, but she could feel the ice crackling beneath her own feet. It sounded different, too, in a way she could not placeit did not have the squeaky, percussive resonance of the lake-ice back homeand she wondered if Canadian ice froze differently or just sounded different.
She got down on all fours and crept closer to the hole. It was right at dusk. She peered down into the hole and dimly saw Gray Owl standing down there, waving his arms at her. He did not appear to be swimming. Slowly, she took one glove off and eased her bare hand down into the hole. She could find no water, and, tentatively, she reached deeper.
Gray Owl’s hand found hers and he pulled her down in. Ice broke as she fell, but he caught her in his arms. She could smell the wood smoke in his jacket from the alder he burned in his cabin. There was no water at all, and it was warm beneath the ice.
“This happens a lot more than people realize,” he said. “It’s not really a phenomenon; it’s just what happens. A cold snap comes in October, freezes a skin of ice over the lakeit’s got to be a shallow one, almost a marsh. Then a snowfall comes, insulating the ice. The lake drains in fall and winterpercolates down through the soil”he stamped the spongy ground beneath them“but the ice up top remains. And nobody ever knows any different. People look out at the surface and think, Aha, a frozen lake.” Gray Owl laughed.
“Did you know it would be like this?” Ann asked.
“No,” he said. “I was looking for water. I just got lucky.” Ann walked back to shore beneath the ice to fetch her stove and to release the dogs from their whoa command. The dry lake was only about eight feet deep, but it grew shallow quickly closer to shore, so that Ann had to crouch to keep from bumping her head on the overhead ice, and then crawl; and then there was only space to wriggle, and to emerge she had to break the ice above her by bumping and then battering it with her head and elbows, struggling like some embryonic hatchling; and when she stood up, waist-deep amid sparkling shards of iceit was nighttime nowthe dogs barked ferociously at her, but they remained where she had ordered them. She was surprised at how far off course she was when she climbed out; she had traveled only twenty feet, but already the dogs were twice that far away from her. She knew humans had a poorly evolved, almost nonexistent sense of direction, but this errorover such a short distanceshocked her. It was as if there were in us a thingan impulse, a catalystthat denies our ever going straight to another thing. Like dogs working left and right into the wind, she thought, before converging on the scent.
Except that the dogs would not get lost, while she could easily imagine herself and Gray Owl getting lost beneath the lake, walking in circles forever, unable to find even the simplest of things: the shore.
She gathered the stove and dogs. She was tempted to try to go back in the way she had come outit seemed so easybut she considered the consequences of getting lost in the other direction, and instead followed her original tracks out to where Gray Owl had first dropped through the ice. It was true night now, and the blizzard was still blowing hard, plastering snow and ice around her face like a mask. The dogs did not want to go down into the hole, so she lowered them to Gray Owl and then climbed gratefully back down into the warmth herself.
The air was a thing of its ownrecognizable as air, and breathable as such, but with a taste and odor, an essence, unlike any other air they’d ever breathed. It had a different density to it, so that smaller, shallower breaths were required; there was very much the feeling that if they breathed in too much of the strange, dense air, they would drown.
They wanted to explore the lake, and were thirsty, but it felt like a victory simply to be warmor rather, not coldand they were so exhausted that instead they made pallets out of the dead marsh grass that rustled around their ankles, and they slept curled up on the tiniest of hammocks, to keep from getting damp in the pockets and puddles of water that still lingered here and there.
All eight of them slept as if in a nest, heads and arms draped across other ribs and hips; and it was, said Ann, the best and deepest sleep she’d ever hadthe sleep of hounds, the sleep of childhood. How long they slept, she never knew, for she wasn’t sure, later, how much of their subsequent time they spent wandering beneath the lake, and then up on the prairie, homeward again, but when they awoke, it was still night, or night once more, and clearing, with bright stars visible through the porthole, their point of embarkation; and even from beneath the ice, in certain places where, for whatever reasonstemperature, oxygen content, wind scourthe ice was clear rather than glazed, they could see the spangling of stars, though more dimly; and strangely, rather than seeming to distance them from the stars, this phenomenon seemed to pull them closer, as if they were up in the stars, traveling the Milky Way, or as if the stars were embedded in the ice.
It was very cold outsideup aboveand there was a steady stream, a current like a river, of the night’s colder, heavier air plunging down though their portholeas if trying to fill the empty lake with that frozen airbut there was also the hot muck of the earth’s massive respirations breathing out warmth and being trapped and protected beneath that ice, so that there were warm currents doing battle with the lone cold current.
The result was that it was breezy down there, and the dogs’ noses twitched in their sleep as the images brought by these scents painted themselves across their sleeping brains in the language we call dreams but which, for the dogs, was reality: the scent of an owl real, not a dream; the scent of bear, cattail, willow, loon, real, even though they were sleeping, and even though those things were not visible, only over the next horizon.
The ice was contracting, groaning and cracking and squeaking up tighter, shrinking beneath the great colda concussive, grinding sound, as if giants were walking across the ice aboveand it was this sound that awakened them. They snuggled in warmer among the rattly dried yellowing grasses and listened to the tremendous clashings, as if they were safe beneath the sea and were watching waves of starlight sweeping across their hiding place; or as if they were in some place, some position, where they could watch mountains being born.
After a while the moon came up and washed out the stars. The light was blue and silver and seemed, Ann said, to be like a living thing. It filled the sheet of ice just above their heads with a shimmering cobalt light, which again rippled as if the ice were moving, rather than the earth itself, with the moon tracking itand like deer drawn by gravity getting up in the night to feed for an hour or so before settling back in, Gray Owl and Ann and the dogs rose from their nests of straw and began to travel.
“You didn’tyou knowengage?” Susan asks, a little mischievously.
Ann shakes her head. “It was too cold,” she says.
“But you would have, if it hadn’t been so cold, right?” Susan asks, and Ann shrugs.
“He was an old manin his fiftieshe seemed old to me then, and the dogs were around. But yeah, there was something about it that made me think of . . . those things,” she says, careful and precise as ever.
They walked a long way, Ann continues, eager to change the subject. The air was damp down there, and whenever they’d get chilled, they’d stop and make a little fire out of a bundle of dry cattails. There were little pockets and puddles of swamp gas pooled in place, and sometimes a spark from the cattails would ignite one of those, and those little pockets of gas would light up like when you toss gas on a fireexplosions of brilliance, like flashbulbs, marsh pockets igniting like falling dominoes, or like children playing hopscotchuntil a large enough flash-pocket was reachedsometimes thirty or forty yards awaythat the puff of flame would blow a chimney-hole through the ice, venting the other pockets, and the fires would crackle out, the scent of grass smoke sweet in their lungs, and they could feel gusts of warmth from the little flickering fires, and currents of the colder, heavier air sliding down through the new vent-holes and pooling around their ankles. The moonlight would strafe down through those rents in the ice, and shards of moon- ice would be glittering and spinning like diamond-motes in those newly vented columns of moonlight; and they pushed on, still lost, but so alive.
The small explosions were fun, but they frightened the dogs, so Ann and Gray Owl lit twisted bundles of cattails and used them for torches to light their way, rather than building warming fires, though occasionally they would still pass though a pocket of methane and a stray ember would fall from their torches, and the whole chain of fire and light would begin again, culminating once more with a vent-hole being blown open and shards of glittering ice tumbling down into their lair . . .
What would it have looked like, seen from abovethe orange blurrings of their wandering trail beneath the ice; and what would the sheet of lake-ice itself have looked like that nightthrobbing with ice-bound, subterranean blue and orange light of moon and fire? But again, there was no one to view the spectacle: only the travelers themselves, and they had no perspective, no vantage from which to view or judge themselves. They were simply pushing on from one fire to the next, carrying their tiny torches.
They knew they were getting near a shorethe southern shore, they hoped, as they followed the glazed moon’s lure abovewhen the dogs began to encounter shore birds that had somehow found their way beneath the ice through small fissures and rifts and were taking refuge in the cattails. Small winter birdsjuncos, nuthatches, chickadeesskittered away from the smoky approach of their torches; only a few latemigrating (or winter-trapped) snipe held tight and steadfast; and the dogs began to race ahead of Gray Owl and Ann, working these familiar scentsblue and silver ghost- shadows of dog muscle weaving ahead through slants of moonlight.
The dogs emitted the odor of adrenaline when they worked, Ann saida scent like damp, fresh-cut green hayand with nowhere to vent, the odor was dense and thick around them, so that Ann wondered if it too might be flammable, like the methaneif in the dogs’ passions they might literally immolate themselves.
They followed the dogs closely with their torches. The ceiling was lowabout eight feetso that the tips of their torches’ flames seared the ice above them, leaving a drip behind them and transforming the milky, almost opaque cobalt and orange ice behind them, wherever they passed, into wandering ribbons of clear ice, translucent to the skya script of flame, or buried flame, ice- bound flameand they hurried to keep up with the dogs.
Now the dogs had the snipe surrounded, as Ann told it, and one by one the dogs went on point, each dog freezing as it pointed to the birds’ hiding places, and Gray Owl moved in to flush the birds, which launched themselves with vigor against the roof of the ice above, fluttering like bats; but the snipe were too small, not powerful enough to break through those frozen four inches of water (though they could fly four thousand miles to South America each year and then back to Canada six months lateris freedom a lateral component, or a vertical one?), and as Gray Owl kicked at the clumps of frost-bent cattails where the snipe were hiding and they burst into flight, only to hit their heads on the ice above them, they came tumbling back down, raining limp and unconscious back to their soft grassy nests.
The dogs began retrieving them, carrying them gingerly, delicatelynot caring for the taste of snipe, which ate only earthwormsand Ann and Gray Owl gathered the tiny birds from the dogs, placed them in their pockets, and continued on to the shore, chasing that moon, the ceiling lowering to six feet, then four, then to a crawlspace, and after they had bashed their way out and stepped back out into the frigid air, they tucked the still-unconscious snipe into little crooks in branches, up against the trunks of trees and off the ground, out of harm’s way, and passed on, southas if late in their own migrationwhile the snipe rested, warm and terrified and heart-.uttering, but saved, for now, against the trunks of those trees.
Long after Ann and Gray Owl and the pack of dogs had passed through, the birds would awaken, their bright, dark eyes luminous in the moonlight, and the first sight they would see would be the frozen marsh before them, with its chain of still-steaming vent-holes stretching back across all the way to the other shore. Perhaps these were birds that had been unable to migrate owing to injuries, or some genetic absence. Perhaps they had tried to migrate in the past but had found either their winter habitat destroyed or the path so fragmented and fraught with danger that it made more senseto these few birdsto ignore the tuggings of the stars and seasons and instead to try to carve out new lives, new ways of being, even in such a stark and severe landscape: or rather, in a stark and severe periodknowing that lushness and bounty were still retained with that landscape, that it was only a phase, that better days would come. That in fact (the snipe knowing these things with their blood, ten million years in the world) the austere times were the very thing, the very imbalance, that would summon the resurrection of that frozen richness within the soilif indeed that richness, that magic, that hope, did still exist beneath the ice and snow. Spring would come like its own green fire, if only the injured ones could hold on.
And what would the snipe think or remember, upon reawakening and finding themselves still in that desolate position, desolate place and time, but still alive, and with hope?
Would it seem to them that a thing like grace had passed through, as they sleptthat a slender winding river of it had passed through and rewarded them for their faith and endurance?
Believing, stubbornly, that that green land beneath them would blossom once more. Maybe not soon; but again.
If the snipe survived, they would be among the first to see it. Perhaps they believed that the pack of dogs, and Gray Owl’s and Ann’s advancing torches, had only been one of winter’s dreams. Even with the proofthe scribingsof grace’s passage before themthe vent-holes still steamingperhaps they believed it was a dream.
Gray Owl, Ann, and the dogs headed south for half a day until they reached the snow-scoured road on which they’d parked. The road looked different, Ann said, buried beneath snowdrifts, and they didn’t know whether to turn east or west. The dogs chose west, and Gray Owl and Ann followed them. Two hours later they were back at their truck, and that night they were back at Gray Owl’s cabin; by the next night Ann was home again.
She says that even now she still sometimes has dreams about being beneath the iceabout living beneath the iceand that it seems to her as if she was down there for much longer than a day and a night; that instead she might have been gone for years.
It was twenty years ago, when it happened. Gray Owl has since died, and all those dogs are dead now, too. She is the only one who still carriesin the flesh, at any ratethe memory of that passage.
Ann would never discuss such a thing, but I suspect that it, that one day and night, helped give her a model for what things were like for her dogs when they were hunting and when they went on point: how the world must have appeared to them when they were in that trance, that blue zone, where the odors of things wrote their images across the dogs’ hot brainpans. A zone where sight, and the appearance of thingssurfacesdisappeared, and where instead their essencethe heat molecules of scentwas revealed, illuminated, circumscribed, possessed.
I suspect that she holds that knowledgethe memory of that one day and nightespecially since she is now the sole possessoras tightly, and securely, as one might clench some bright small gem in one’s fist: not a gem given to one by some favored or beloved individual but, even more valuable, some gem found while out on a walkperhaps by happenstance, or perhaps by some unavoidable rhythm of fateand hence containing great magic, great strength.
Such is the nature of the kinds of people living, scattered here and there, in this valley.
Copyright © 2002 by Rick Bass. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.