Beringia (Part II) | Tanyo Ravicz | The Piltdown Review

Beringia (Part II)

Beringia (Part II)

In Part I of Tanyo Ravicz’s “BERINGIA,” archaeologist Janet Arroyo’s annual expedition to Alaska’s North Slope has just struck gold with the discovery of distinctive Clovis-style spear points that could upend prevailing theories about the earliest humans to migrate across the Bering Isthmus from Asia. But before the three-woman team has time to catalog the find, doctoral candidate Ellen Banning is attacked and killed by a rogue grizzly. Now, in a landscape rendered hostile and strange by global warming, an argument between Janet and her rival, Dr. Myrka Platte, over crediting Ellen with the discovery has led Janet to the brink of murder . . .

A few raindrops fell, and they postponed going down to the excavation. Not knowing the whereabouts of the grizzly bear disconcerted them, and they stayed in camp until they saw him again in the late afternoon, across the tundra to west. In a renewed effort to drive the bear away, they ventured toward him with the shovel and soil auger, and they shouted and banged the ladle on the stew pot, making the noises of self-assertion that underscored their humanity, but the bear only defecated and dug for roots. Later, when he had ambled down to the lakeside, Janet sat on the limestone ledge and watched him, and as much as she feared and hated him, she recognized a kinship between them, survivors, both of them, of the Ice Age extinctions. A woman of the twenty-first century is after all not so different from her Ice Age forebears. Not many people understood this, in their bones and loins understood it and thrilled with the understanding. Dr. Newcastle understood it, and that’s why she had liked him. Seeing the grizzly bear rooting in the lake sedges, slightly bowlegged, a pictograph come to life, Janet felt a curious nostalgia for the past, and for Janet Arroyo the past meant the late Pleistocene.

She got up and glimpsed herself in a puddle, short and thick, a classic meso-endomorph in build, and she fancied that fifteen millennia ago she would have blended in with the bison hunters who inhabited this land, would have felt at home walking into their camp and sitting at their fireside. In her youth her snub stature had seemed a curse to her, and she had rebelled against it or compensated for it by lowering the bar for men, a phase of her private evolution that fortunately didn’t last long, but lasted long enough. As a mother Janet didn’t have the domestic arrangements in place to easily cope with her responsibilities, but she did a passable job of rearing a son and daughter. She was too honest with herself to pretend to any moral superiority over Dr. Platte. One woman’s “lowering the bar” is another woman’s manipulative tease. To judge from people’s behavior, most seem to think of right and wrong as pleasant fictions, and Janet reluctantly saw herself in this light, the chief ethic being the avoidance of bother and embarrassment. She had carried on with an undergraduate, an anthro major; she had “borrowed” material from the university collections; she had inflated her CV when it served her. She had done these things in a sneaking, selfish way, knowing they were held to be wrong and believing they were quite probably wrong but knowing, too, how commonly they were done and in this commonality absolving herself.

But she no longer felt that hitch in her conscience. Once the idea of murdering Dr. Platte had entered her thoughts, she didn’t outright dismiss it as impracticable or even wrong. For practicability there would never be a better time. Help wouldn’t arrive for three days. By then the corporal evidence would be consumed. No creature on earth is more odious to man than a predatory maneater. They would certainly track the bear and kill him.

Janet sat and watched the bear on the far shore of Brazier Lake. He was not like other grizzlies she had seen over the years. His early descent from the mountains, his fearless and deadly aggression—these set him apart, and finding it plausible that the bear was responding to climate cues, she hypothesized a link between his singular behavior and some of the large-scale ecological anomalies that she and Burt Newcastle had discussed. Everything is connected in this way. Under every macro lie a million micros. Between yesterday’s exhumation of the spear points and today’s fatality, there was no overt connection, but she sensed a covert linkage. She saw in toto what others saw in bits and pieces. The world is in flux, gas, solid, liquid, fusing, transforming, permeable, measureless, the undulant tundra, the bottomless sky, the abundant waters . . . Change is the order of the third planet from the sun.

Change . . . Most people have no idea, she thought. They think change is a lifestyle makeover or a political gambit: a change of clothes. Two years ago Janet’s team had disinterred from the permafrost the remains of a juvenile woolly mammoth whose cell nuclei, analyzed in a research lab in Seoul, were scarcely degraded, their DNA of cloning quality. In Siberia the tundra had in places already reverted to the sort of grassland that had once supported the woolly mammoth. As the permafrost melted and the earth collapsed, the possibilities multiplied. In a century woolly mammoths might roam the grassy north again. There’s change for you. Change! Tusked and fanged, the future bounding toward you.

But if change is recrudescence, where’s the change? A resurrected mammoth dies. The seasons turn and return. Glaciers advance and retreat. A polar vortex here, an angry summer there. Redundancy is built into all things. We breathe the air for as long as we breathe it. Fate is the expert knapper who brings the stone to a fateful point. Where’s the freedom in this? Janet struck an imaginary arrowhead, driving her fist down at an angle. She lifted her hands and interlaced the fingers, observing her actions with detachment, knowing that in the last analysis her faith in her freedom was irrational. But she had never been able to talk herself out of it.

She was lost in her musings when she heard behind her a cry, a groan of anguish followed by a scream, and when she turned she saw on the tundra a raven squawking and flapping its wings and Dr. Platte stumbling forward with the back of her hand raised to her eyes in an expression of willful blindness. Janet at once ran to her aid, but Dr. Platte, choking her tears down and shaking her head, avoided Janet and started back to the Quonset hut. Janet had gone only a step or two after her when she faltered and gagged in revulsion, seeing the thing that lay in the moss at her feet, an eyeless human head bearing only the slightest resemblance to Ellen Banning.

“Where is she?” Dr. Platte screamed the words as she ran. “Where’s the rest of her?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’m getting out of here.”

“How can you?”

“Close the door.”

Janet left the door open, entering the Quonset hut behind her. Dr. Platte went directly to the space heater, opened the gas valve, lit the jets and sat shivering and warming herself. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

“I don’t see how. It’s seventy miles to the road.”

“I’ll hike out.”

“Myrka, this isn’t your Sunday hiking group.”

“I can’t wait three days. I shouldn’t have come this summer.”

“You don’t mean that.”

The gas heater burned luminous orange and a sound of wind rushed from it. Dr. Platte drew her eyeglasses forward and blew a sprig of moss off the lens. “You’re right, I don’t,” she said. “But this summer will be my last at Brazier Lake, Janet. It’s time to move on. We’ll both be calling our shots from now on. My lectureship is bound to be renewed next year . . .” Dr. Platte had risen from her chair and seemed to be in the grip of a daydream as she examined a spear point at the table. She laid the point down and dispelled the mood with an apologetic laugh, perhaps regretting the unseemliness of her celebrating her prospects under the circumstances. “What a nightmare,” she said.

“Or what an omen,” Janet said.

“Omen, all right, but why not a nightmare?”

“Because we’re not asleep,” Janet said. “The bear is there and he’s real and he’s telling us something—about the climate, in my opinion.”

“The bear? That’s a stretch, but who knows? You sound like your friend Burt.”

“Why do you call him my friend?”

“Isn’t he? He’s your style,” Dr. Platte said.

“Yesterday he looked like your style,” Janet said.

Dr. Platte winced. “I’m sorry about that. I lapped up after you, didn’t I? I shouldn’t do that.”

Janet turned off the space heater by twisting the valve clockwise, and the heating element gradually cooled and lost its luster. In the back of the Quonset hut she outfitted a backpack with supplies for an extended trek across the tundra. She was so casual about this, packing in the food and socks, the space blanket and survival gear, going about it as though she were merely cleaning house or making an inventory, that she had all but done packing before Dr. Platte, who sat at the table, noticed anything unusual. Dr. Platte was sketching comparative diagrams of the three Clovis points, a ruler and eraser at hand along with a digital camera, but when she heard the burping of the backpack zipper she looked up at Janet and put her pencil down. “What are you doing?”

“I’m hiking out of here,” Janet said.

“What do you mean? Where?”

“Toolik Lake.”

“But you just told me it was a crazy idea.” Dr. Platte pushed her chair back and stood from the table.

“I can do thirty miles a day,” Janet said. “I’ll get help in two days, three days max.”

“But it’s not necessary—I agree it’s better to wait.” Dr. Platte looked on uncomprehendingly while Janet wrestled her heel down into her hip boot. “There are too many risks. It isn’t worth it.”

Janet drew the rubber boot strap through her belt loop and snapped it back down on itself. Her heart was pounding and her face felt hot. “I’ll take the GPS with me,” she said.

“In that case I’ll go with you, Janet. We should stay together. I don’t think it’s a good idea, and I’m sorry I even mentioned it, but I’m in if you’re in. Did you pack a raincoat? Those sprinkles are real. We’ll write a note for Burt or whoever comes first, and if we don’t make Toolik Station, they’ll know to fly east for us.” Dr. Platte sat and opened the lab book to a fresh page. “Are you sure you want to do this? It won’t be as easy as you think, Janet. You know how deceiving the tundra can be. Should we share a tent?”

Janet nodded her head, frozen in place while the earth turned inside her. It seemed terribly important now to go ahead with it, though the idea had outlasted her stomach for it. “To whom it may concern,” Dr. Platte said. “No, to Burt Newcastle,” she said. “Oh, it doesn’t matter.” Dr. Platte put her pen to the paper and scribbled a note to explain their absence from Brazier Lake, and while she did this Janet drew the shovel from the tool barrel and approached behind her and hit her in the back of the head with it. It was a crushing blow and knocked Dr. Platte out of her chair. Janet raised the shovel again and hit her in the head with the blade. On the third blow the handle twisted loose in Janet’s grip and the edge of the blade caught in the fallen chair.

Janet’s chest rose and fell as she stood over Dr. Platte. She threw the shovel down and leaned over the prone figure. Blood streamed from behind Dr. Platte’s ear. With a gasp Janet backed up and looked for her other hip boot. She pulled the boot on and secured its strap, and her heart lurched when she turned to Dr. Platte again.

She lumbered outside and scoured the tundra. The grizzly bear was still down at the lakeshore. Janet ran back into the Quonset hut and swept the Clovis points off the table and into the fleece pouch in which Ellen formerly kept her sunglasses. Her hands shaking, Janet pushed a sock into the pouch to cushion the spear points. She tightened the drawstring and was about to stow the pouch in the side pocket of her backpack when she changed her mind and slipped the drawstring through her belt loop above her appendectomy scar, then backed the pouch through the drawstring loop and let it hang snug at her waist.

She was looking at the pouch when she saw a bright flash. She had a millisecond’s glimpse of a metal spur gleaming red and protruding from the right side of her body as she was knocked forward and violently shaken. Dr. Platte yanked the soil auger free and lunged at her with it again. Janet cried out and crawled out of reach.

Dr. Platte, raging and spitting blood, jabbed at her a third time, but purblind without her eyeglasses and unable to rise off her knee, she jabbed weakly. Janet swiftly outflanked her and snatched up the shovel. She dodged the auger bit once more, its terminal spike dripping blood, then swung the shovel like a hickory bat into Dr. Platte’s face. Dr. Platte flung over sideways. One of her teeth pinged against the tightly stretched vinyl of the wall.

Janet dropped the shovel and clamped her hand over her lacerated flesh. The auger bit had punctured her side from back to front above her right hip. She was glad to have the roll of fat there. She stripped to the waist and cleaned and dressed the twin wounds with a rectangular bandage. Still half-naked, she slipped her hands under Dr. Platte’s arms and dragged her outside. It was a hundred yards across the tundra to the limestone tor where the grizzly bear had taken Ellen twelve hours before. Janet strained and several times fell, dragging the body, but she could see the grizzly working his way back along the west side of Brazier Lake, nearing the camp again, and she didn’t delay. At last she dropped the body. Braids of blood coursed through Dr. Platte’s hair and coagulated in the moss.

Janet washed her chest and arms in a tundra pool. Back in the Quonset hut she tore off her sopping bandage and taped on a fresh one. She dressed. She cleaned the shovel and replaced it in the tool barrel. She carefully removed all blood traces from the soil auger and stored it, disassembled, in the carrying case as Burt had left it. Then she glanced around the Quonset hut. She opened a jar of peanut butter, Dr. Platte’s favorite snack, and slathered some on a round of pilot bread which she left on a plate on the table.

From the door she watched the grizzly bear on the western horizon. She flipped her baseball cap onto her head, set it the way she liked it, squatted, took her pack onto her shoulders, secured its chest and waist straps, touched the fleece pouch at her waist, and was about to vacate the Quonset hut when she noticed on the table the note Dr. Platte had written “to whom it may concern.” She tore the page of graph paper out of the lab book and crumpled it in her hand.

Somewhere east of camp, in the treeless, unpeopled tundra, Janet unclenched her fist and dropped the crumpled page in a muddy hole. Before long Brazier Lake was several miles behind her. Strong and alert, being familiar with the country, she made those first miles quickly. An energy of having-done-it, of vindication, and ultimately of freedom braced her up. Hers was the lone human figure in that immensity. In her hip boots she crossed the bogs as easily as the dry tussock grasses. Compact, her center of gravity low, she felt completely of the landscape, and the sprinkling rain added to her sense that the earth was taking her to itself, to its heart, the raindrops touching her as throngs of people might touch her in a triumphal procession.

In sixty-five miles, if she traveled east, Janet would emerge on the unpaved Haul Road at a point north of Toolik Field Station. She would catch a ride south with a trucker or an oil worker. Nobody would imagine that she had hazarded such a journey out of evil intent or to cover for a murder. It would look like an act of heroism or a harrowing escape, but it would not look like murder.

She trampled the dwarf willows and the berries, she splashed through the shallow bogs, and she climbed windswept ridges from which she looked on miles of primal wilderness, a semifrozen land of mosses, lichens and fungi overlying deep permafrost and rotting peat, the green tundra streaked copper and red under a rolling overcast of cloud, a country of puddles, ponds, lakes, streams and stones.

With the passing hours and the passing miles of spongy, ankle-wrenching terrain, Janet wearied and slowed to a trudge. The entry wound was bleeding again where the frame of her backpack rubbed against it, and she stopped and applied a new dressing. There was a sameness to the country, unrelieved by any other sign of humanity, the sun lost in the overcast behind her, and when her focus lapsed and her steps wandered, she used the handheld GPS set, essentially a satellite compass, to straighten her course and guide her east.

The rain fell steadily and she raised her hood and rolled a protective rainfly over her backpack. Now all the ponds were dimpled by the rainfall. Her boots squelching with every step, her gait dull and repetitive, Janet sometimes forgot why she was there. From the ground passing under her feet, from the changing shades of the grass and sphagnum moss, from the curling tendrils and sockets of shadow, shapes emerged, shapes recognizable to her, and she was haunted by the specter of Ellen’s severed head, an eyeless head smeared with hair, moss, blood and bird droppings, so tangible, so real this ghostly double with its grisly accents—the rent cheek, the eaten ear, the yellow curd in the nostril—that on seeing the phantom she took care to walk around it, and in the long northern twilight its wavering afterimage haunted her step.

Janet, though she had padded the packframe in back, was unable to stanch the flow of blood from the entry wound. She finally changed the bandage again, an awkward exercise in the rain, twisting about while the rainwater ran from the bill of her cap. Night was a long palpitant twilight, subtle and gloomy in the early hours of morning when the dark land swelled beneath the clouds and heavy mist. Slogging through a muskeg, the footing slippery and uneven, she turned her ankle on the lumpy topside of a tussock head, and in reaching for balance, in the sudden flinging out of her arm, she lost her grip on the GPS receiver. The device could not have flown far—Janet heard it splash nearby—but it took her some groping in the puddles to find it. She shook the wet from the device and slid her thumbs over its keypad. Snowflakes drifted around her, just a few snowflakes, fleetingly visible when she raised her face, and she noticed at the same time an unexpected warmth at her hip and lower back.

She camped on a low riverbank on the tundra plain and built a fire out of driftwood. Looking out from the smoky firelight, thinking of the predators who inhabited the Arctic steppe, she wondered how much of a blood trail she had left. She stood the can of pepper spray close by while she rebandaged the lacerations and kneaded her swollen ankle.

A meal of cheese spread and pilot bread restored her. She rose and gathered armfuls of the deadwood that had washed down the river and beached in the gravel. These, stacked by the flames, dried nicely. The fire flared and Janet settled down beside it. The GPS receiver was said to be water resistant, but its backlighting had failed, and missing its reassuring glow, she leaned the device closer to the heat in the hope of restoring it. She drew the Clovis points from the pouch and held one of them to the firelight. The light flickered on its cusps and facets and the cup of the basal fluting. It was a fine example of the knapper’s art. Janet rolled the point between her fingers and tried its edges. She arranged the three spear points on the ground pointing in at the fire and gazed on them, her intelligence excited.

She had never believed that nomads of every stripe, vanguard hunters and breakaway lovers and banished visionaries, hadn’t entered Alaska much earlier than the fourteen thousand years ago suggested by the record. She knew people better than that. Humans had inhabited Siberia tens of thousands of years ago. It was perhaps too much to hope that the Brazier Lake excavations, given the impetus of this latest discovery, would yield evidence of earlier habitation, but she hoped it anyway. She foresaw years of digging at Brazier Lake with nature digging beside her. Pingos would collapse, and thermokarsts would open and reveal their secrets. The great powers among nations, rapacious according to their greatness, would ravage the north of its resources while their doom unfolded around them. Janet, also rapacious, rapacious of knowledge, a scientist and thinker, stared into the flames or into the surrounding darkness, and her mind ranged from Africa to Solutrean Europe to Siberia to Alaska and over all the models that purported to map the epic journey of her kind across the planet.

The flames twisted and grappled with the shadows. The firewood collapsed and crackled. Janet had been aware, since the strain of dragging Dr. Platte across the tundra, of an ache in her back, but the ache had grown into something worse, a painful and persistent throb, and she suspected that in lancing her with the auger blade Dr. Platte had not only pierced her skin but also nicked or cracked a rib or bruised her ribcage by the force of the blow.

She swallowed a handful of aspirin and kept the pressure on her right side by pressing around her hip and pelvis and the small of her back. She would have expected to hear birds in the surrounding wetlands, loons or pintails calling, but apart from the rustle of fire and the purl of the river, the night was silent. Yesterday she had seen a few dabblers in the pools, but what had struck her as peculiar was the sight of flocks of waterfowl flying south for the Brooks Range passes, a sight that only now made sense to her, chilling sense, as the herald of an unseasonable cold spell, unseasonable inasmuch as Janet, who was not alone in this, had come to take for granted the warmer Arctic springs and summers.

The snowfall was light and innocuous. She stoked the fire and ducked into her sleeping bag and slept. Toolik Lake was many miles ahead and she didn’t intend to sleep long. Hours later she woke to a world transformed. The landscape was dramatic in its beauty, the whitened tundra with the dark river winding through it, but Janet was too cold to linger, and her breath condensed in the air as she struck camp.

She was filling her canteen from the river, crouching in the riverside gravel, when she found a lump of workable rock, good chert that her ancestors would have sharpened and killed with, and she kept this for a memento. The sky had partially cleared and the sun glimmered in the northeast. The hike warmed her at once. Under her feet the frosted tundra crunched, the Labrador tea and moss and lowbush cranberry, and under her weight the skim ice shattered. Janet enjoyed shattering it, she stomped on the frozen puddles, she went out of her way to break them, freeing them up, thinking Everything is an upward striving, and what you punish, what you finally defy, is everything that confines you or contains you, and she strode through the shallow pools and scattered all reflections.

To her right the mountains of the Brooks Range were mantled in snow, and ahead in the east a series of low ridges defined the horizon. The stark prospect didn’t intimidate her. She was a woman of the Anthropocene, much bigger than the limits of her skin. The snow melted and evaporated, the sun ascended in its long Arctic traverse, and the glistening landscape thrilled her with its open-ended promise. Her back and her ankle had loosened up, and after dosing herself with aspirin, she was able to maintain a brisk pace, which after five and six miles became an unforgiving pace. She aimed to reach Toolik Lake by tomorrow evening and would hike day and night to get there. She must arrive weary and frightened; she should look half dead when she reported the terrible occurrences at Brazier Lake. Janet remembered the sound and feeling, reverberating through the shovel and through the bones and muscles of her own arms, of Dr. Platte’s face being crushed, and she fretted now that the bear might not consume Dr. Platte thoroughly enough or fast enough and she might have been wiser to bury the body in one of those mucky pits on the tundra and to let it sink and rot and turn to greenhouse gases.

Janet had left Brazier Lake with a feeling of leaving a place to which she would not return, but she had every intention of returning to the excavation, and it must rather be some country of the past she had left behind, of her youth or of a lost innocence. What she had feared in youth was to live without really living, without knowing everything there was to know, but looking now on the spread of her years, she saw an inextricable paradox. Until you have lived, you have not lived, but once you have lived, what remains? The cup once drunk is empty. What did she fear more, death or an incomplete life? One must consider the possibility that some things are better left unknown—unsaid, untried, undone. On the other hand, she was a scientist, an empiricist. The historical and archaeological records are clear about this. Skeleton after skeleton bears the marks of untimely and violent death. The Alpine mummy known as Ötzi the Iceman, our Copper Age everyman, our glaciated progenitor, died how? He was murdered, naturally. If killing isn’t the ultimate signature of humanity, its hand is no less prominent than love’s.

Killing Myrka Platte was certainly wrong, but Janet had never felt the same weight of gravity in doing right, and if it was the wrongness of the doing that made the difference, if in doing wrong she had felt life’s moment as never before, then arguably in her case wrong was right. This sounded reasonable enough, but reason has its limits, the chief among them being its limitless circularity, and it’s a good thing, she thought, that people tend to lose themselves in the lowest caverns of their reasoning minds and never to emerge into anything like the light, the inhuman light. She believed in science, in the beauty of fact and the elegance of method, but of the many scientists she had known, most had merely masqueraded as scientists and cared nothing for the truth. After fifty-one years on earth she herself had come to recognize the truth less by its ring of reason than by its appeal to her inner ear. It would be inaccurate to say that Janet had been fated to kill Myrka Platte, but in taking Myrka’s life, in delivering the act from the matrix of possibilities, she had created its fatedness, laid down its lines of destiny, and in this way, recalling her first dig at Peñas de los Gitanos in the south of Spain, her unlucky love for the boy Mauricio, and the legend of the Gypsy woman who had murdered her faithless lover, in this sense the seeds of her crime had been planted in her many years before, and the murder of Myrka Platte was runed forth in the megaliths of Spain.

Her thinking helped to pass the time as she hiked, and she smiled or hummed a song, keeping up her spirits as the hours and miles went by. She had covered nearly fourteen miles of tundra before she stopped to rest and to drain her hip boots. She had waded three rivers today, and in the third and fullest, her hip boots had flooded, and although she had unbuckled her backpack and supported it on her head as she crossed, she had stumbled and almost lost the pack downriver, and in wrenching around to catch it she had torn the lacerations again and streaked the river with blood.

She cut a strip of cotton from a T-shirt, doubled it and taped it in place over the wounds. She peeled her wet socks off and massaged her swollen ankle and pressed the blisters. Seated on a cushion of heather, she noticed dead flowers around her, tiny Arctic blossoms annihilated by last night’s freeze after being coaxed into bloom by the mild weather, and with a pang of pity she raised her canteen to her lips and drank, thinking how wretchedly deceived are the young of every kind.

She had packed enough food for three days afield, but not for the caloric expenditure of such a marathon, and in any case not satisfied—another granola bar, a stick of jerky slathered with cheese spread—she was grumpy with disappointment when it came time to move out. She hadn’t traveled at nearly the rate she had hoped and she didn’t tarry. It seemed that the snow had hardly dried from the ground before another squall threatened, and as the clouds massed in the sky, the sunlight dwindled. She confirmed her bearing with the GPS compass but found it odd that, according to the GPS tracking record, which she now scrutinized, her progress had been infallibly eastward and she had maintained an unvarying heading since morning, so literally unvarying that she hadn’t altered her course by a single degree all day.

This hardly seemed possible. Janet about-faced and test-walked a hundred feet in the opposite direction, to the west, and as she knew with a certainty that she was heading west, she was dumbfounded by the display of east on the GPS receiver. Incredulous, she repeated the experiment, walking westward, and the result again was a reading due east. This is bad, she thought. After last night’s immersion in the puddle, the GPS receiver’s backlighting had failed, but the other functions had appeared unaffected, and although Janet had turned off the unit to conserve its power, this morning the display had indicated a successful satellite link.

She reset the device and shook it and spun in a circle with it. She hiked north toward the Pole and south toward the Great Divide and both times the GPS indicated an eastward heading. East! The word infuriated her. East! Every way is east. There is only one direction and it is east.

Janet glared at the shrouded sky and she mocked herself for her misgivings. You panic like a caribou calf, Arroyo. Nothing changed the fact that the Brooks Range was south of her. She put the GPS away and hiked on, keeping the mountains on her right-hand side. Now and then she felt for the pouch at her waist, reassured by the solidity of the spear points. The afternoon had darkened, and an ominous quality, something electric or barometric that tingled her scalp and chilled her in the pit of the stomach, caused her to quicken her step. She hastened up another slope, her last pair of dry socks no longer dry but damp with perspiration, and her hip boots increasingly cumbersome as her strength waned. The view from the crest of the hill brought her to a standstill. She was reminded of a photograph she had seen of an active bombing range. The tundra basin below her was cratered with thermokarsts. Whatever the ecological reasons—subterranean geophysics, surface albedo—the thaw and heave of the permafrost had been intense and widespread here, and the result was a blasted landscape, a catastrophe of cave-ins and melt pools.

Janet descended into it. She sometimes turned in place or lifted her cap and stared, marveling at what she saw. Methanous ponds simmering with microbes. Extrusions of mud the size of city buses. It was an eerie place. A stench of putrefaction reached her nostrils. The land hissed and festered and bubbled. Algae scummed the shallows. Gases whispered. On every side she heard the chunk-chunk of falling earth, the splash of collapsing banks, the slither of mud and the dripping of fluid from stranded roots.

This is it, she thought. This is where it’s happening. It’s here and now. It’s here and now and all around you. All of her adult life she had listened to the do-nothing prattle about climate change. She herself had signed petitions, she had lectured on the subject. First it was global cooling. Then it was global warming. And now it was too late—if it had ever not been too late. On with it, she thought. On with it. The earth is reborn, and like maggots on fresh carrion the archaea swarm the fervid earth and find it good. On with it!

These churning sinks, these fuming pits, these teeming cauldrons she walked among, these boils and implosions of mud, these noxious sumps and pocky hollows, they weren’t the wounds of a suffering earth, they were the eyes and mouths of new worlds, the buds in the nursery of time. Epochal change was under way and she Janet Arroyo traversed its steaming sourceland. The earth turned and wobbled and orbited, it heated, cooled, growled and exploded, it purred, fulminated and broke forth in peals of creation. On with it!

A flood of adrenaline accompanied Janet’s awakening. Her gait and posture were strong, her fatigue forgotten. No more limping, no more leaning to counter the pain in her back. She scarcely noticed the first snow flurries, only surprised that on a land so warm and dynamic the snowflakes stuck at all. She didn’t fear the darkening sky. What should she fear? Climate change? Somewhere beneath her feet lay the relics of the oldest settlements in the Americas. How did they come here? Climate change. What force parted the seas? Climate change. God or Gaia, chance or providence—it was climate change that had offered survival and a destiny to those who chose to cross the offered land bridge.

Janet walked through the light snowfall, walking with her lover the earth. Striding on the scale of geologic time she felt unstoppable. Exhilaration! Just to go forward was to hear the thunder of bison on the Beringian grasslands. With an ear tuned to the past she heard the tattoo of the far-off future. If her backpack had been less unwieldy she would have broken into a run—that’s how exultant she felt, her breath a gift of the cosmic breath of which every wave and particle of her being partook. No happiness in her day-to-day professional life compared with this. The anguished ecstasies of sex and childbirth had come closest, but those were done. She had chosen archaeology at a time when people declared her field to be dead: nothing left to dig up, they said. No, the past was disinterred on a worldwide scale, the future recast, the dead revived, new species discovered under retreating glaciers. In the Andes, the Alps, the Wrangell–St. Elias, from the North Slope to the South Seas, Zealandia to Doggerland, Laurasia to Gondwana and across the crucibled earth, it was all one happening, one universal wave, one vast transformation.

A gust of wind caught Janet’s baseball cap up and sent it scudding away in the snow. She stopped and looked around, surprised by the intensity of the snowfall. The temperature had dropped—sharply—and snowflakes skittered past. She found the wool hat in her backpack and rolled it down over her ears. Now plodding ahead she was less sure of herself than before. The basin of the thermokarsts was behind her, and as the distance increased and the snowfall thickened, her earlier enthusiasm seemed misplaced, even foolhardy. The world contracted, the visible world, its depth and detail reduced, its color drained, and Janet, puffing into her hands to warm them, stared south through the blowing snow in an effort to imprint the shape and direction of the mountains on her memory.

Something in Janet’s temperament made her want to laugh in defiance of the late-season snow. She scoffed at her doubts—You never expected a path strewn with summer wildflowers, Arroyo—but as the cloud ceiling sank and the snow pelted her face and neck, the danger of her situation became real to her, and she felt small and weak, a speck of life on the snow-whitened tundra of Alaska’s North Slope.

Yesterday’s edgeless green tundra had become a shifting gray-white vortex. She lumbered east in the snowfall, shivering incessantly, a pair of dirty wool socks mittening her hands. The heaviest cloud layer lifted, and between the gusts of snow she saw miles across the tundra, but the reprieve was short-lived, and she had no sooner glimpsed the Brooks Range in silhouette than the view was obliterated again, and unable to orient herself to the mountains, she was no longer confident that she was hiking east and not wandering in vain.

This frightened her. Icy water trickled under her collar. She focused on the snow ahead, placing one boot in front of the other, but her focus swung like a lantern in a blizzard, and she faltered and looked behind her at the tracks quickly filling with snow and leading nowhere.

Janet squinted in the flying snow and stomped her boots up and down. She had almost certainly veered off course by now. The farther she pushed, the more she would stray from true east. She noticed to the left a bulky shadow, an upstanding shape which she found to be, moving around it now and peering up at it, a mass of granite ten or twelve feet high. She ran her mittened hand across its face, the snow driving past them, and taking the massive granite for evidence of volcanism, she searched the area for thermal pools or hot springs, well knowing that in all probability she was millions of years too late or too early, but hopeful all the same. She found other rock forms, tall, broken piles of granite, cold and austere on the tundra, but none offering her more than the scantest leeside shelter.

Janet looked to windward and her eyes watered and the tears froze on her face. On every side the snow was falling upwards. Her feet were numb, her cheeks and nose stung to burning, the wind drummed in her ears. While she still had her wits about her, she scrambled down the knoll under the first standing granite and dug a hollow into the earth at its base, a den to curl up in. She dug without rest, tearing the moss and clawing the earth, panting and steaming in the harsh air, and in front of the den she scraped a fire pit. Without delay she worked to kindle a fire in the pit, fumbling the lighter in her frostbitten fingers. Every spark she greeted with an eager gasp. Ten, fifteen, twenty times she thumbed the spark wheel, and at last she raised a small yellow flame which the wind extinguished. Kneeling closer, shoulders shaking, Janet thumbed the wheel again and again, driving it against the stone, and finally the fire took as she fanned it to life. Food wrappers, toilet tissue, clothing scraps—if it was disposable, if it was combustible, Janet added it to the little fire over which she warmed her hands and her grimacing face. Once, once only, she scurried into the blizzard and pawed at the snow and broke off the twigs that she meted out to the flames. She burned the fleece pouch in which she had carried the Clovis points; she burned the GPS cover; she knifed off clumps of her own hair and fed them to the fire; shook in the sprigs of moss which the heat had dried; and bowing and jealously breathing on it, she sustained the fire a few minutes longer.

It was late in the day. Janet curled up in her sleeping bag in the shallow den and drew the space blanket over her. She tucked its edges down and she waited for the whiteout to lift. Summer snowstorms are short-lived: she kept telling herself this. She had hiked thirty or more miles and would be halfway to Toolik Lake by now. She pictured Burt Newcastle laboring over a lab table in a shabby trailer at Toolik Field Station. She pictured the familiar Quonset hut with its portable heater and its store of preserved foods. Soon the graduate students would arrive at Brazier Lake with fresh food and a satellite telephone. Dr. Janet Arroyo would share her discovery with the world and accept the encomiums that followed. You should have been content with those things, she thought. She was well regarded in her field, enviably positioned; her journal articles appeared, her name was cited. She had fought for success like anybody else, had craved it, won it, lost it, won more than lost. Why wasn’t that enough for you? Why must you go spacefaring?

Janet sobbed in fear, her jaws clenched and her face frozen numb. The fire had burned down but she didn’t go for fuel. The pall of snow was impenetrable. Snowflakes whirled through the air and snuck past her face. She thought of Kayla in her first year of dental school and Justin her civil engineer son living his bohemian life in San Francisco. She longed to be close to them. If she survived this she would make a point of calling them more often and she would never be bored or dismissive of other people or ever take anything for granted.

She wrapped the sleeping bag tighter around her and the snow fell and the wind blew. The corner of the space blanket flapped up and now the whole blanket picked up and blew away before she could stop it. She snatched her arm back into the sleeping bag and convulsed in a shiver. They had agreed what a relief it was, she and Ellen and Dr. Platte, reunited at Brazier Lake, agreed what a delicious relief it was to suspend their Facebook and Twitter accounts and to turn the world off for a while, but she missed it now. Curled up in the snow, shaking with cold, Janet imagined opening a notebook computer and feeling its warmth on her knee and hearing its hum and logging into her account.

The snow misted about her and hid her from the world. She clutched the Clovis points to her chest, and the thought of Dr. Platte, or the consciousness of her crime, brought a heat into her face, a scalding heat which she might have attributed to the outermost flames of hell if she had believed in hell. In truth any heat was welcome at the moment. As a child she had imagined how very clever it would be to make herself invisible, to disappear from the world and never to be found, but faced now with the prospect of extinction, she cared, she cared deeply about it. In five thousand years they might identify her DNA and clone her. Yes, she would keep like a bog woman or an Arctic beast preserved in permafrost. This was the best she could hope for. The story of a murderess has a right to be told.

The snow had covered the earth when she woke, and snowflakes settled soundlessly around her. Janet rubbed the frost crystals from her eyelashes. Asleep, her ear to the earth, she had heard a sound from under the tundra, a sound like the kicking of an unborn infant, but it may have been her heartbeat she heard. She found a pool of raspberry-colored ice beside her, and she traced its source to the viscous stream of blood that flowed from her side. In the violence of her digging she had reopened the auger wounds and she had lost a great deal of blood while she slept. Her sleeping bag was sodden with it.

Janet broke off a chip of the bloody ice and laid it on her tongue and dissolved it. She ate several pieces of herself before she rose and shouldered her pack and, having climbed the ridge, headed on into the snow fog, grateful for the tingling lassitude that dulled the pain in her back. The wind had subsided, and strange lights gleamed in the fog, and in the south she saw the mountains again, the mysterious and forbidding peaks that had once marked the limits of the known world.

She lengthened her stride. On a day like this young lovers or a family or a clan had pushed a little farther into the Beringian grasslands. They had pushed on and they kept going because the hunting was good and the freedom was good and they eventually stopped looking behind them because the distance was too great to turn back and they carried with them the good things that mattered to them. With time the unknown soil became a familiar soil, became a home to them, but they remained, like Janet, fugitives on its surface, restless and vulnerable. She had passed her life in distant countries and alien climates, in Iberia and Africa, Russia, Australia and South America, sojourning among ghosts, bringing to light the relics of lost peoples. What is life in any time or place but a walkabout over yesterday’s bones? It was always one foreign shore or another for you, Janet. You have trod among mammoth and mastodon. You have spent your life in far-off lands and out-of-the-way reaches. This is simply the last and greatest.

THE END

shortlink: dogb.us/beringia2

          

               

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