Grade A: MacKenzie River

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), August 2003.  Odd that the first thing I wrote after falling in love with my future spouse would be about a man who rejects the society of other humans:  I guess it’s a farewell to being alone.  In college I had two friends (whose names, alas, I’ve completely forgotten) who talked about their plan to do just this, including the sauna idea—but they were counting on visiting a nearby town for supplies (and the company of Eskimo women) once or twice a year, so the situation isn’t the same.  I love the fact that this was published in Permafrost, the literary mag of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, the closest city of any size to the MacKenzie River Basin in the Northwest Territories.  I owe the spiders snapping in the stove to my Washington girlfriend, Alex Bradley, who had a wood stove.  In addition to Permafrost, published in my books If I Could Be the Stone and Wings of the Gray Moon.

MacKenzie River


His door is a pure bald hole in the wall plugged with the piece of the wall sawed out of it.

(We say “door” for open and closed door.  I doubt he thinks of this.)

No conceivable function for a porch, none for a window, an aluminum chimney exists for smoke, or the door for a crisis backdraft.

He wouldn’t want to look around him.  It looks how it looks:  they’re partners not friends, he and the forest, and leave each other be.


His quartered logs are pyramided one side of an outhouse;  spiders throw silk cities through them that unstick when the logs are taken, and the spiders snap in the stove.


The outhouse isn’t a crapper but a sauna.  All it has inside it are rocks hot water’s poured over in the winter.  He goes naked in the shed, then goes naked into a snowdrift.  No one’s watching.


He hunts what he eats.  Those are his slow careful days.

He’s good with a bow or knife but favors his rifle because the pain’s rapid and then lost.  He knows about the pain that isn’t but doesn’t feel any urge to nudge it, pet it on the crown, let alone start it.


When did he come up here and lose a life people would understand?

When is more crucial than why:  whys work themselves out over years.  The answer is eleven.


Eleven years without moving from these woods without seeing anyone other than the ones with the whisper of death on them also before the shot, flickering buck, bland fox, the pheasant and its fussing.


He sleeps sometimes for a week it seems, then wakes a week

and is all a whipped spindle of clanks and risings, of straddled legs and reaching out the back, and at the end of one of those weeks, no sign of anything done


because he never adds to his life only repairs it.


He owns one book, a scarred old Sears catalog, has the item numbers and prices by heart, the possible colors of the sweaters, the count of parts in the toys.

He can leave it open to one page for days but the pages themselves are unreadable:  he brought the catalog into the sauna once and it wizened and bled.


He dreams of walking through a Sears department store, this oblique lingerie model with a clipboard escorting him.  “I’ll take that one, and that” he says and she writes it down.

Then it begins to snow in the showroom, till the store goes blind, and he’s sighting through his gunscope at the cold transforming whiz waiting for a thing, anything, to prowl into it, and feels the hot of his own breath and blood shrink as it leaves him, the blizzard catching it away

and on a startle of breath he awakes.