The dream always comes before a storm hits. I know it by heart—even my dreamself knows what’s going to happen next. The great bear twists her head towards us and in her eyes, it’s clear—she’s turned. Behind me, Alex and Mark curse and run. The bear roars. It is thunder, breaking clouds. It rattles through me, icy hot fear flashes up my spine and claws at the back of my skull. Time slows. My grandfather, my mishomis’ voice pierces the thick veil that’s muffling my senses. Never run from a predator—never become prey. Running just makes them want you more. For a sliver of second, I’m angry—that’s the only thing my brain offers up when faced with a bear?
She is slow as she begins her lunge towards me. The world is slow and my brain takes in every detail—her dark fur bristling, the slick of her black nose, the vapour of her breath as it splits the morning mist. I hear her grunts; they clatter and bounce inside my gut. Time speeds up just as she does. My blood beats through me with each thump of her paws, as they hit and tear at the earth. For a few seconds, this rhythm connects us. The ground is shaking, or is it me? My grandfather’s words hold me where I am. Fear holds me where I am.
Then the gun is in my hand. It points at her.
Bear charged me once. I shot it straight in the head. Didn’t even faze it. Their skull’s so thick, the bullet ricocheted and killed my dog instead. Mishomis’s voice, his story about the bear. My finger pulls the trigger and I wonder if this bullet will kill me instead.
Somehow, it doesn’t.
Somehow, it rips through her eye. She dies instantly. Her head and front dip and crash into the ground, breaking her thunderous stride. She slides and tumbles through the grass.
The great bear is dead at my feet when Alex and Mark return. Later they’ll tell me that the gunshot made them stop their flight while the silence afterward brought them back. The gun is still in my hand and Alex has to pry it from my fingers. The great bear’s body is steaming in the morning chill. Her meat is poison. All I can think is, did I waste a bullet? Maybe I say it because Alex hugs me and Mark laughs. I wonder how many great bears are left.
That’s when we hear her baby cry.
“Sis, sis!” No. It doesn’t say that …
“Sis, they want you.”
I open my eyes slowly. Grey darkness greets me. I can tell from the dizziness swimming in my head—even as I push into the waking world—that I haven’t slept for more than an hour. Seth is standing in the doorway, the door cracked just enough so that he can poke his head in.
“I’m…awake,” I admit reluctantly. I sit up and rub my eyes, trying to ward away the nausea of waking too early, sleeping too little. The chill in the air sobers me a bit. Enough light escapes the hallway for me to make out the sheepish look on my little brother’s face. “It’s okay, Seth. I’m not mad.”
“They always send me when you’re trying to get some rest,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
I stand up and stretch. Seth picks up my boots by the door and tosses them over to me. The world outside has painted my windows black. The dead of night creeps by so slowly lately.
“What’s this about?” I realize that my breath is coming out as small puffs when I speak. Briefly, I consider wrapping a blanket around me, no that won’t do. I have to look—formidable.
“You know they never tell me anything,” Seth says as I pull on my boots.
I manage the walk over to my brother without feeling dizzy.
“I don’t think it’s good,” Seth admits as we walk together down the hallway. He fidgets with his hair, tucking it behind his ears.
Sometimes when we walk like this, the building melts away. Seth is a full head taller than me, lanky but strong. There was a time though, when he would not go anywhere unless he was holding my hand. We walked for days, hand-in-hand, until our palms were raw.
The floor creaks and cracks as we make our way. There are holes to watch out for, but the candles along the walls do a good job of lighting the corridor. This hotel is a ruin like any structure that survived, standing tall, stubborn, but deteriorating on the inside. Morgan wants us to leave, find somewhere new where we can make our own shelters. He’s never had to tread the snows before, with nothing to eat but frozen grass and your own clothes. He does not know how hungry the world gets.
Seth pulls a candle from a sconce as we hit the end of the hallway where the floor splits into staircases going up and down. He leads the descent, the light of the candle barely pushing away the shadows.
I was afraid of that darkness once. At the time, I had never known true darkness—the cities were all full of lights that did not burn out, candles that buzzed and hummed. They were campfires, so bright they washed out the stars.
I remember the bloom of the city against the black as we drove away that first night in the darkness. The pitch clawed at the windows of the car. The only light came from the dash, casting my mother’s face in a sickly green glow.
“Where are we going, Momma?”
The dirt road bucked our car and Seth, in the back, woke up and began to cry. He was only five then. He’s scared, I knew. I took off my seatbelt and climbed into the backseat beside him. Seth had a fistful of his favourite blankie as he wailed. I wrapped my arms around him like Momma showed me, so that he couldn’t hurt himself or me.
I could see my mother smiling in the mirror above her head. “That’s it, sweetie. Look after your brother. You keep him calm.”
In my mind, I see her smiling perfectly without the green glow. The thing that happens next—the look she makes—I keep in my own darkness and never bring a candle to it.
Seth and I reach the ground floor. Damien is waiting for me.
“Thanks, Seth,” Damien says. He’s holding a small lantern that casts tendrils of light across his face.
Seth nods but looks away. He does not look at people’s faces. He did not look at me until he was five.
“I’m sorry. This couldn’t wait,” Damien says. Damien is older than me but he remembers less about Before than I do. He told me once that he wrapped his childhood around a rock and threw it into a lake. It’s better to look ahead, he had said. I’ve seen too many of us get lost in the past.
Part of me knows that I should be nervous. Even half obscured by the dark, the disquiet in his face is clear; his eyes tell me that something has shaken him.
“Whatever it is, it’ll be okay,” I tell him. That mantra Seth and I used to share with each other. Say it with confidence and people will believe it.
Damien nods. “We should…go,” he says, looking to Seth and then to me.
In silence, we part ways. Seth blows out the candle he’s been keeping for my benefit and disappears into the shadows of the stairwell as Damien and I begin walking together. The only sounds are our feet, the crackle of the lantern’s flame and the clink of the revolver at my waist.
The ground floor had been hollowed out by some group before us. It is just empty space with wide pillars at regular intervals and metal barrels we hold the fires in. The only exception is the tiny room tucked into a corner—where a door with the word “Maintenance” stands, sentinel against the emptiness.
Damien turns the knob to the door, holding the lantern in front of him as I follow. The hole in the floor, dug out and adorned with makeshift, wooden steps, is just big enough for one person to fit through at a time. The firelight from down below makes the little room glow. Damien blows out the lantern and heads down the stairs.
The proper stairwell to the building’s basement had caved in shortly after we found the place. Mark had taken a pickaxe to the floor to reclaim the under levels; we cannot let the world take back everything, he had said. We need a cellar for our cabbages.
Torches light the corridors, one for every few steps, giving off just enough firelight to see but maintaining just enough shadow to always remind us that here we traverse the intestines of the earth. We pass the room called “Boiler”, the council room.
“I’ve spoken to Fariq and Padma already,” Damien says. “Manu is on a hunt tonight—well, I guess you know that.” He stops in the middle of the hallway; his gaze sets on the door at the end of the corridor. He does not say anything for long moments.
His lips move once before the words come out. “They found him. Corso came across his tracks on the hunt—”
“Is Corso alright?” The words spill out, trying to buttress the bloody images in my head.
“No worse for the wear.” Damien steps to the side and I notice the figure standing by the door at the end. Corso gives a little salute. Why is he guarding the do—then I realize.
“He’s in there, isn’t he?”
Damien gives a painful nod. “He is. They brought him back.” He turns to the door at the end of the hallway again. “It’s been decided that it’s best if we deal with this tonight.”
Though I know by we, he means me.
I hear my voice tell him, “I understand,” and I’m moving, but really I’m falling into a moment that feels so long ago, a hole in the ground…
The jaws of the bear trap crunch against my leg with such a force, such pain that—for an instant—I know my foot’s been severed. I scream so loud it hurts, like fingernails tearing at the inside of my throat. I barely feel the wet ground as I crash down into it.
Seth is two strides ahead of me. He is somewhere around twelve years old, no longer a boy but not yet a man. The face he makes when he looks back scares me—I don’t want to look. The pain is so intense, the world becomes too bright to bear. I can feel the blood rushing through the veins at my temples—my ankle is nothing but white, hot light…
I think I pass out. When I open my eyes again, Seth is hovering over me, his mouth opening and closing with no words coming out. I want to tell him that it’s okay, but all I can manage is another scream. Then, “Go!” Run. Keep running.
His hands are like ice around my leg.
“Blood,” Seth says. “You’re bleeding.”
I try to answer but I scream again. I bite my tongue and taste rust.
Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I’m standing paces away, watching this whole thing as it unfolds. I’m twisted on the ground. Seth is kneeling over me, trying to wrap his hands around my leg where the bear trap holds me, trying to stop the bleeding.
There’s voices and movement in the distance, rustling leaves and wet muck sounds. I need to get Seth to move. They’re going to get him.
But I’m crying in the mud.
My feet splash through half-frozen puddles as we walk down the remainder of the underground corridor. Damien is behind me. He hasn’t said anything. There’s not much to say.
The torches float by.
Corso is standing guard outside the final door. The letters on this one have long since fallen off—this is the room that has no name.
“He’s tied up to one of them pipes,” Corso tells me as I near the door. There are a few scratches on his face, but in the shadows they seem to blend in with his other scars.
My hand grabs for the knob and turns it in one fluid motion. The door opens and I move with it, like a gust of wind. I’m in. I’m standing before him. The revolver is in my hand. I point it at his head—
His head is bloodied, hair caked with mud. He is shriveled like a corn husk. The tips of his fingers are black from frostbite.
I must kill him.
I point the gun at his head.
I draw back the hammer.
This is not the first man that I have shot, but I pray it will be the last.
I must kill him.
My heart is beating against my insides, pumping blood so hard my fingers can’t seem to hold the gun. Why did they bring him back? I must kill him—my finger wraps around the trigger. I must kill him—
The world beyond my eyelids is too bright. I know, even before I open them, that it has snowed again—that the sky is cloudless and that the sun is dancing across the white surface everywhere. Manu is beside me. He must have returned from his hunt sometime in the night. I should be cold, but his arm is wrapped around me. I can tell by the way he’s breathing that he’s sleeping deeply. I must have been sleeping deeply. I don’t remember making it back to bed, let alone his return. One benefit of sleeping too little is that sleep always comes quickly, even when it shouldn’t.
It’s easy to stay like this—groggy and warm. I could sink into the soft rhythm of his breath against the back of my neck…Last night feels like a fever dream I sweated out.
The revolver is on the table beside the bed.
Sometimes I forget to take it off when I lay down. Manu hates that. The grip jabs him in the gut. He says one of us will get shot. He’s never used a gun. He doesn’t know how they work.
So, you’re the one who slew the bear, was the first thing he said to me. I had never heard anyone speak like that before. The sounds of his words were foreign, yet familiar. I remember blushing and looking at the black swirls that covered his shoulder.
He took a fish from the pile, laid it out across a rock and took a knife from his pocket.
“Who taught you how to cut fish?” He slit the fish’s cheek.
He smiled. “My grandfather, too.”
Manu groans a little as I move his hand and slowly sit up. The sitting up clears my head. I swing my legs around the edge of the bed, stretch out my toes. The brightness in the room tears at my eyes but they adjust as they always do. That is our curse—that our bodies adapt to the world around them, even when our minds do not.
Is killing a monster a waste of a bullet? Misho told me not to waste them.
Manu grabs me by the elbow lightly. “Go to sleep.”
He never speaks of his home, though I know he dreams about it. I picture a village by the ocean, full of dark-skinned, dark-eyed people that talk like him, people with black swirl markings on their bodies.
“How do you say hello where you come from?” I asked one day as we cleaned fish.
He didn’t respond. I thought I had offended him. There were many people that did not like to talk about Before. I decided not to push.
“Do you know who Nanabozho is?”
He shook his head.
“He was a trickster and a shapeshifter. He could change into anything he wanted. People would say ‘boozhoo’ to each other when they met. Like ‘hello’, but they were really asking if the other person was Nanabozho playing a trick.”
I looked at him. “Boozhoo,” I said.
“Kia ora,” he said.
The silence in the room unsettles both of us. I can’t think of what to say—why I can’t go back to sleep. What is tied up in the basement…I cannot say the words. Manu sits up behind me.
“I know,” is all he says.
“Do you? Because I don’t. They were supposed to bring back food. They brought that thing instead…” The words are sharp rocks that fall out of my mouth, cutting my tongue and lips. “I know what they expect me to do, what I should do. But I couldn’t. I—couldn’t.”
Manu wraps his hand around mine and only then do I realize it’s shaking. I stand up, cross over to the window. The cold seeping in from outside is a welcome distraction, a pause in the landslide. Maybe if I stand here long enough the words will freeze. Winter’s been so long this year, I wonder if the sun remembers what grass looks like.
This is the world. The little town that once lived here is mostly flat with only a few structures jutting out of the snow. The cedars in the distance are the only break in white. Sometimes, when I look out this window, I think I see a great bear moving through the trees. I like to pretend that this is the bear I chose not to shoot, the cub screaming in the woods that Seth and I took in. We called her Moon; she followed us from camp to camp until one spring when she did not return.
My arms are crossed against my chest, whether this is defense against the cold or further conversation, I can’t really say. Maybe it’s both. Probably it’s both. Manu is sitting with his arms resting on his knees.
“You know the council will agree to whatever you think is best,” he says after a moment.
“Why? I’ve never understood why.” Anger now, I feel it in my gut. It seems unfair to be angry at him but I’m angry all the same.
Manu shrugs. His silence makes me angrier. Then he turns to me:
“You remember the army camp? Fort Leve I think they called it. Padma and her group set us on that path when they joined us. We left the woods, trudged through that bog…I didn’t think it was possible, but the more they talked about it, the closer we got…I started to hope that it was all true. We’d get there and there would be people, houses with people and medicine and food. I hoped for that.
“Then we found it and it was…just ashes and bones. A huge fence protecting a few ripped tents.” He looks away now, looks at his hands. “I wanted to die that day. That was the day I realized that it really was all gone—and that we were never getting it back.” Silence again. After a moment, he laughs. “But then you and Seth started clearing a space underneath one of those big tents, for a fire.”
What are you doing? Alex had asked me. The question made me stop and look around. Mark was kneeling in the mud near the entrance to the camp. I remember the hollowness in everyone’s faces. But it had been raining. Seth had told me that he was cold.
“We needed to dry off,” I say. It seemed so simple at the time.
“Yeah, well, we needed that.”
I leave him to sleep.
The hallway is empty, though most of the doors along its sides are open. I can hear movement. People downstairs. Most of them are awake by now. I can see the activity on the ground floor as if I were standing there in the middle of it. People building fires, keeping fires, boiling water for cooking and cleaning. Others tending the goats and sheep that we keep in the remnants of the building next door. Others still, in pairs, patrolling this place we call ours.
Last night’s nausea returns.
I make my way down the hallway, stopping at the stairs.
The cat we call Boo is sitting on the first step leading up. He is all white and hard to see when he bounces in the snow. Today he is holding a little brown mouse in his teeth.
When he sees me, he drops the mouse and meows. I sit down beside him, giving in. He purrs as I pet him.
Kitty was the first word Seth ever said. It was the name he gave the plush tiger our mother bought him for his third birthday. Mum handed it to him with a big red bow around its neck and he clapped and said Kitty! Kitty! There were tears in my mother’s eyes. At the time, I didn’t understand why that made her cry.
Seth didn’t really speak until he was almost seven. For the longest time, he called me ‘sweetie’, because that’s what Mum always called me. He said ‘no’ and ‘this’ and ‘sweetie’ but not much else, and then one day sat down beside Misho and told him all about the radishes we were growing in the little garden outside the cabin.
Somedays, I wish we never left the cabin.
I don’t know how long we were in the woods by ourselves. When I think back to the night we left the city, what things my mother put into the trunk of the blue car, the roads we took…I think we were heading to my grandfather’s—my mishomis’s was that somewhere safe.
I grabbed the pup tent, the bag of food and the backpack Mum had packed for me from out of the trunk before the car sank completely into the ditch full of bullrush. Seth stood on the side of the road with his blankie and Kitty. He wasn’t crying anymore. I decided that meant I couldn’t cry either.
At first, I pretended it was like any summer at our grandfather’s—I told Seth that Momma and Mishomis were coming. I lied to him every day. I made a game of it for as long as I could. We followed a river, stuck to the trees. We made a camp at night and I made a fire using a flint striker and birch bark just like Mishomis had showed me a hundred times before. We walked during the day in the bush, like when Mishomis took me out along the traplines. I told Seth that we were trappers now. He said traptraptap sometimes and it always made me laugh.
When we found the cabin, I thought it was abandoned. The door was not locked. The wind opened it and closed it as we neared. Inside, it looked as though someone had come in and torn everything off the shelves. Seth let go of my hand and went running after a can of beans that was rolling on the ground. It was empty.
“This,” he said, throwing the can away.
I walked around the place. It was one big room. There was a black metal stove in one corner, a sink and counter. One wall was entirely a bookshelf. There was a pile of furniture off to the far right and maybe a bed behind it, I couldn’t see. Seth ran towards the back door, as another gust of wind blew it open.
“Seth!” I called after him as he disappeared behind the stack of furniture.
“Sweetie?” he said.
I rounded the pile of furniture. There was a bed, and laying on it, an old man. I thought the old man was dead and I grabbed for Seth, wanting to keep him away. Seth dodged me, clumsily falling into the edge of the bed. When I helped him up, I realized that the old man’s mouth was moving, just barely; his lips were so dry and cracked, no sound could escape.
“Misho,” Seth said.
He knew that wasn’t our mishomis but he didn’t care. He opened the bag I had him carrying and brought out his water bottle.
“This,” he said as he walked over and placed the bottle on the table beside the bed.
Boo gets tired of chin scratches and returns to his mouse. My stomach turns as he begins to pull at the head.
I find myself wandering upwards. Past the fourth floor, where everyone sleeps, there are candle stubs sitting in clusters every two or three steps. This is my unkept secret. A self-imposed exile I adopt sometimes.
The roof, eight storeys off the ground, is bitter in the winter wind. No one comes up here but me. There is an old armchair with a tarp over it left over from the last group who passed through. I imagine whoever sat up here was their watchman, though what he or she was watching for I couldn’t say. The fires did not reach this far and as for other groups…I’ve seen more bones than people, more graves than footprints. I do not look for people when I sit here.
I grab a blanket hanging by a hook before stepping out into cold sunlight. The seat of the armchair has a dusting of snow that’s easily wiped off. There is a metal drum meant for a fire beside the chair. I feel like, with a fire crackling beside me, I could nap here undisturbed. I’ve never lit a fire because of that.
As I settle into the armchair, bundle into the thick blanket, I take off the revolver. It is shiny silver—a single action. Single action means you have to pull the hammer back each time you shoot, you have to think about every shot. I swing out the cylinder and spin it with a finger. This is a habit. There are two rounds, and two spent. When the cylinder spins, the bullets and empty spaces blur together making it seem both full and empty at the same time.
There are lots of guns still, Mark had said when I showed it to him, but not so many bullets left.
He saved my life and my leg. He found us in the mud, Seth and I, pried me from the bear trap, took us in.
“You’re lucky.” His hands were red with blood, my blood, when I woke up in the camp.
“Lucky?” My voice did not sound like me. The pain throbbed in place of searing. There were bandages around my leg.
“That trap snatched you at the sides.” He made a bear trap with his hands. “The other way, and the bone would have snapped.”
I drifted in and out, hearing voices through half-dreams. Sometimes Seth would talk to me. I don’t know if I answered. Another time, I woke—Seth was snoring somewhere close; Mark was sitting near the entrance to the tent.
“Why did you run away from us?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I was afraid,” I said.
“People,” I said.
“Yeah.” Mark nodded. “People can be dangerous.”
I could not walk for days and days, so I read his books instead. Mark knew all about the world Before. He scavenged for knowledge instead of food, brought back books and maps and little things. This is a sparkplug. This is a thumb drive. This is a corkscrew. This is a beer stein.
I hear the door to the roof screech open and Seth appears. He crosses the distance between us with a cup in each hand.
“They’re looking for you. Well, they know where you are. So. I guess they’re waiting for you.” He sets a mug full of steaming dark liquid into my hands. “Padma told me to come up here and give you this.” He sits down on a crate I often use as a footrest.
I can smell the cranberry, the wild rose, the bitter chicory in the tea as its steam wafts upwards. I take a sip of the sweet-then-bitter drink before asking the inevitable question. “What do they want?”
Seth shrugs. “Damien said to Padma that they need to take some people off of woodcutting and fires to cut the meat that Manu and the other hunters brought in. Padma said we’re too low on wood and that the hunters can do it once they have some sleep. Morgan said that he saw a bird and it means winter is over so we should start preparing to leave. Lots of people are wondering where Corso is…” He looks at me and stops. There is probably more—this is always more, but he turns to the mug in his hands and begins to drink instead.
“Corso’s downstairs,” but that is not the full answer. Half-truths are for the others. The words I have to say are staring me in the face, the way the dogs stare one another down. I force myself to look. “Mark is downstairs.”
“Corso is guarding him,” Seth concludes. His response is immediate, matter of fact. He takes another sip.
I’d like to stay in this moment, as simple and banal as it is. Seth could tell me all the rest—how the washers are wanting to redraw jobs for the week, how we’re low on willow bark, how we ought to clean up the other floors, fortify them, how we ought to leave again…
But I’ve said the words, made it real. They are a choker around my throat. The room without a name tugs.
“You have to kill him,” Seth says.
He nods and takes a pinch of snow from the ledge of the roof and drops it into his cup. You can’t die of thirst in the winter, he told me once.
“I have to kill Mark.” The words come out quietly but they are crisp and clean. In the cold sun, in front of Seth, this is a truth I cannot ignore. This is the world, we cannot hide from it.
Seth shakes his head. “His name is not Mark,” he says. “His name is Wendigo.”
“I have to go,” I tell my little brother. The standing up is not as hard as saying the words; things begin to tumble now, on their own course. “The hunters can sleep all day if they want. Let everyone know that. The washers will look after the meat today. Tell Morgan that we’re not going anywhere and tell Padma that we’ll need more people on woodcutting. We’ll need enough for a pyre.”
He is no longer sitting by the pipes. The twine that bound him there now hangs, frayed and chewed. He is lying in the middle of the floor. If his eyes still see, they are focused on the lantern that hangs above, too high out of reach. The lantern’s candle is low, barely casting any light over the sides.
His lips are moving. I cannot hear what he is saying, but I know the words.
“This is the world. This is the world. This is the world.” His mantra, like a ladder of words.
The revolver is in my hand.
He looks. From where he lays, his head jerks to the side and back. The whites of his eyes are bloodshot.
When we found him, he was never still. His eyes wandered. His fingers danced. We thought that he and Alex and the others had been lost in the blizzard.
I remember holding the little stick in my hand, died red with cranberries the day we drew those lots. Red for hunters. “You’re not much of a hunter. We should redraw the assignments.”
“No. This is the system that the group’s agreed to,” Mark said. “I may not be the greatest huntsman, but I can help with the gear, carry any kills, tend the fires.”
The hunting party, four in all, went out into the white. It’s easier to think that none of them returned.
I expect him to say something; I want him to say something, something to replace the memory of his bloody hands, the smell of burnt hair, the bones—the indignant way he said, I had to eat. I needed the meat. So matter of fact, it made Damien throw up.
This is the world, this is the world, this is the world …
In my dream, I remember the voice of the bear, her thunder, but never the blast of the gun.
Light explodes from it and fills the room, shattering the darkness for an instant. The sound is the crack of a great cedar falling, shaking me as it hits the earth. It is the sound of the world taking back one last thing from Before. It is a bear’s roar.