Dreams in Crow-Fukase
(Originally published in Forge Journal 8.2)
He’s out here. I know it. I can see the thrushes just over the peak of the mountain that stands over me, flying in that giant halo. During the winter, their nests are typically found at lower elevations, but regardless of season, their behavior is unlike anything I’ve seen.
I’m laying here in the snow under that great Alaskan summer twilight that lingers always, and I know that today is the day that I die. I imagine my insides finally popping out, too swollen now.
It would’ve been another two years anyways, just like they said, and things had only gotten worse since we found out. My ankles had swelled and I could feel my insides shifting since before the news, not the way they do when you roll over in bed, or take a jog, but the slow glacial shift, crunching and catastrophic.
I think back on everything I left in Illinois and try to squash out the guilt. Rachel had been so mad even before I decided to leave. I still don’t think the doctor’s could’ve helped.
“What do you mean, you’re not going?” she had said. I remember the way she leaned towards me, head tilted in the most annoyed of ways.
“There’s not much point to it, Rachel.”
“No point. No point! Are you blind or just stupid? You’ll be dead before sixty.”
I had looked at her without saying a word, and she must’ve known what I was thinking right then. Her face relaxed the way it always did when a certain nerve had been struck.
“Don’t give me that bullshit, Henrik. You know damn well that isn’t true.”
The dishes she had been doing sunk back to the bottom of the sink, filled with water clouded and soapy. Suds scattered in clusters across its surface. She turned back and resumed hand washing the dishes from that night’s dinner.
“He didn’t guarantee anything,” I remember having said with her back turned to me.
“Exactly! Which is why stopping is a ridiculous idea. It’s stupid.”
And I knew right then that she wouldn’t understand, or that I didn’t have it in me to get her to understand about the time, about the little orange and black birds, about what they were saying was up there in the woods. Phillip Lacroix.
My insides feel the tightest they have ever felt and I know that both my liver and my spleen will explode and it won’t be a swift death, but painful and enduring. I’m unsure if it’s the cold that is cutting down the feeling in my arms and legs, but I had started without much sensation and the worry that I have been walking on fractured legs and feet without knowing it makes its way into my heart easily.
I try to catch my breath, try to find the strength from within to lift myself and stay on my track to find him. Somewhere between worrying about my bones and grasping my chest in pain, I stand up and trudge on through the powdery snow, knee high, that bursts and spreads with each clumsy step like salt from a shaker that scatters across the table.
You could hear wild accusations while making your way to the changing room at work. In the months before I left, I heard them call him a pederast, a lunatic and every other name in the book.
“Did you hear the last report on Lacroix?” someone would ask.
“No, what’s it now?”
“Apparently he’s living with Kodiak bears, you know like that grizzly guy who got all eaten and shit. Apparently he can talk to them, or tame them or something.”
People would go through the usual gamut of theories for weeks on end. Cultism, Satanism, sacrifices, crimes, drugs, cartels. You name it and someone seemed to have a theory for it. When none of the major news corporations released a story about him being arrested for any of it, they seemed to fizzle away like soda foam. So I started researching him.
I can remember one image from one late night, about three months after Rachel and I had fought in the kitchen and my symptoms started getting worse. My skin started tightening and hair began showing up in strange places. One photojournalist tried tracking him in the northern Alaskan woods. All he got was one picture. I remember looking with amazement at the image. It looked like a tornado but short and wide, like a halo and not fully fleshed out, rough at the edges. When I expanded the photo, I could see what must’ve amazed the photojournalist before he collapsed from what would later be determined as hypothermia. It was a mass of birds flying in a circle just over a mountain peak. I knew it was the thrushes, the small orange and brown birds that gathered above that summit. And why?
My steps are getting heavier every moment and I can lift my legs less with each step. I trip over myself landing on my hands and as my elbows bend, I can feel the skin so tight it could snap open. I am shrink wrapped in leather. With a guttural hack and a wretch I spit up blood that pools and melts the top snow before cooling and freezing on the speckled texture of the porous mound. My insides feel more shredded, almost like breakfast hash. An eerie type of cold licks at my neck and I know it isn’t the cold of temperature or frost, but the icy debt sent years ago.
I crawl towards a pine tree and use the stubs of branches to grasp and bring myself upright and brace myself by leaning against it. So weary and weak now, and I can barely hold myself upright, I begin to consider the very real possibility that I will never find Lacroix, see the thrushes and whatever it is that’s up there on the mountain, and I will have left Rachel so horribly for nothing.
“Press on you poor, dumb bastard,” I say to myself because I know deep in my heart that there has been nothing harder than this trek, that there is no return from this. I remind myself of those things, before I came to these woods and set my car on fire to die in oblivion, when I donated almost everything I had, when in the weeks before I left we began sleeping in different rooms.
She called me a coward first, then a sociopath. I forgot the names in between, but she finished on “complete fucking idiot.” I had given all my shoes and clothes to shelters, my belongings to churches and thrift stores that would take them. Anything else that I couldn’t find anyone to take, I just threw away at the local dump. Our lives had been separated and were imbalanced and the apartment was the evidence. All that remained were Rachel’s things, her books that leaned vacantly on the shelves, her clothes that barely filled the dresser. I had told her to keep the furniture, but I don’t think she heard it.
Rachel refused to acknowledge that I was leaving, and yet managed to bring up my irresponsibility every chance she had. Meals shared became tense, distanced and impersonal. The pained remembrance of how it all ended would become the sharp reminder that a good woman had been cast aside. I was teaching myself what dying meant before I even left for Alaska. I was trying to find out what it meant to lose everything and learn how to let it go. I don’t want to be that man on his death bed, white knuckled to the last vestiges of his life.
The drive took a full week. I tried not to stop for meals longer than half an hour each, and even then I tried to eat on the road as much as possible. The trip was haunted by the last sight of Rachel when I glanced into my rearview mirror. She was in the front window in her bathrobe, nose and eyes red from crying hard. I hadn’t slept the previous night either for more reasons than I can say. Every town I stopped in I considered calling her and knew she would pick up the phone and in some ways I wish I had, for one last chance to tell her “I love you.” To not be mad, to know that I had to do this, to be as mad as she wanted, that I deserve her worst, that “I love you.” There’s never enough time.
The forest breaks up and the dense pattern of trees quickly dissolves into a clearing. My lungs are raw and cut and bloody from the icy air, how can anyone breathe up here? I grasp a branch from one of the last trees before the clearing and feel nothing. My head spins so viciously that it seems to sweep across the frozen land and I can almost feel my stomach tighten and cramp before I wretch. An immense paleness bleeds all of the sky and the trees of any vibrancy and I can feel my consciousness letting go in a brief moment, almost an evaporating second of clarity, of knowing what is happening in the mind before I collapse. I imagine the snow feels cool against my skin. The polyneuropathy has killed too much human in me.
Through the pallid expanse I see the mountain peak that no one else can see, and a sweeping cylinder, like a desert thunder cloud spinning in a draining tub. I can see the thrushes and their beacon to the world telling us where to find it.
I am not Henrik, in the last years of his fifties. I am not dying, but already dead and eternal. As I stand, I spread my arms out and feel them reach out like wings of the universe and all of my feathers are the dreams. They feel infinite, these arms or wings-I don’t know anymore, and I cannot seem to get a grasp on the stillness of an earthly consciousness.
In this dream, everything is moving ever, and I cannot be still and glide through the vestibule of the afterlife. I know what the thrushes are guarding, and what is on the mountain. I can see it in this dream.
The branches, spiny and sharp, slip across from under the sky and I watch them, gliding on my back. I can hear the grating sound of packed snow being broken under a sled and realize I’ve been put on one. I’m being pulled. Death never felt as close as it does in this very moment. I can feel my very consciousness wavering. I tilt my head back in an effort to see who or what is pulling this sled, and all I see is something that walks upright, covered in a thick fur. For a split second I think to myself that this is obviously where Bigfoot would’ve run to.
When I open my eyes again is when I realize that I slipped back into a dreamless sleep. We’ve reached a clearing and I can see the twilight sky above me. Still the snow is grating under the sled. The beast in front still pulls it with the strength of what I imagine a bear would have, and I envy it, barely able to lift my arm to rub my numbed nose.
The final time I open my weary eyes, there he is. He sits by the campfire, bundled in animal furs and he still looks like a bear that wears a human’s face. I roll off the sled, barely able to pull my leg up to my chest, let alone stand. I crawl to the fire which is not so far away and that is when I first hear his voice, low and gentle and smoothed at the edges, like dark polished oak, classic.
“Get close to the fire,” he says without lifting his eyes from the pot that gurgles with its lid heavy placed on top of it.
“Where?” I ask breathlessly. The words are heavier than my legs and I know if I speak too much I will pass out again.
“About hundred feet from the summit.”
This is Phillip Lacroix, bearded face of hard carved lines from seeing too much of something. I want to ask him so many things about the thrushes, where he goes, what he sees and knows. Have you died before? What does God have to say about us? Is there truly a life like this waiting for us on the other side? But I can’t, it’s all too much for me and I can feel my body letting go. I notice my breathing is heavy and labored only when he gives me a knowing glance, like he’s seen and done this all before.
“Lacroix?” I ask.
He nods with a blink. I let out a deep breath as the exhaustion from crawling over leaves me.
“What’ve you found up here?” I ask
He takes a deep breath as he stokes the coals of the fire with a stick he must’ve found earlier.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“It’s killing you, inside and out, isn’t it?”
I take my time to reply, somewhat taken aback by how he knows, “yes.”
“What’d you come from, Henrik?”
“No. I want to know what you’re running from, who did you leave behind?”
Rachel leaps into my mind. Everything stings for her. I try talking through it, hoping the pain bores.
“Had a girlfriend, Rachel. Job at a grocery store.”
“You left it all.”
“For nothing,” he continues, “and were you prepared to die out here?”
“Thought I was, not sure I’ll ever be ready for it.”
He looks at me with eyes that have seen beyond the earth, or at least it seems. Has he heard this before?
“It’s Crow-Fukase syndrome.”
“Call it what you want, it’s called dyin’,” he cuts me off.
“Fine. I’ve been dying for the past three years.”
“So you needed to the find the answer.”
“When will it finally kill you?” he asks.
“Pretty sure today’s the day.”
“And you thought I had the answers? Up on this mountain, where they photographed the halo?”
“I don’t know. I hoped. There were rumors, people would say-”
“People say a lot of things.”
“What did you find, Phillip?”
“Not until I know you’re right for it.”
“Doesn’t mean anything, death. It’s just the next step, the great equalizer. Everything in life dies, and nothing in the wild feels sorry for itself, or entitled to anything. Why did you come here, Henrik?”
I cannot speak, knowing right now that I have used my condition to escape everything I was afraid of. I had lost myself in its excuse, thinking that somehow it made me special, made me different from a bird that falls dead from a bow, never feeling sorry for itself. And still, Rachel finds her way into my thoughts and I wish I could crush them.
“I want the answer.”
“I don’t know,” I say, searching for something inside me that I cannot define or describe.
“I can’t show you anything that’ll give you what you’re looking for if you can’t even tell me what it is yourself.”
I know it in me to be true, and I can feel the words bubbling up like volcanic ash that spews out of the mouth of a dormant and colossal mountain top. At once it is releasing and terrifying.
“I’m afraid of dying,” I say and feel it shoot up from the bottom pit of my stomach, through my heart and out from my throat. There is solace in knowing what cannot be undone or unsaid. Phillip simply nods with what I suspect is the faint edge of a smile.
“You think I can save you,” he says.
I want to say no, but don’t because I know that I really hope he can.
“I just need to know if there’s life after death,” I say as a tear rolls down my cheek and I realize I hadn’t even known my eyes were watering. Still he gazes at the fire, deep in contemplation, stirring the white coals with the stick, tip smoldering. He breaks the silence between us.
“Let me show you something.”
He stands up, strong and steady and lifts me gently by the arm, draping it across the axis of his shoulders. We walk like this together, clumsily through the trees and for the first time since I woke up I take in our surroundings under the barely dark, barely lit sky. I have no way of knowing our elevation, but as I look out, the mountain peaks are not as looming and god-like as before, and I can hear it and see it. The flustered flutter of what sounds like a million hands swathed in fabrics gently slapping one another. As I look up I can see the thrushes, so close now, their song sounds like the waves of a stormy coastline as they thunder against the rocks of a cliff side. They are a churning, swirling mass of brown, almost black because there are so many. More birds than I have ever seen in my life and I cannot catch my breath.
“Easy, Henrik. Deep breath. It’s just a little farther,” Phillip says as we make our way through a treeless, rocky mountainside where a dirt path has been built. I see a cave in the not so distant peak and I wonder if I’ll make it, if I’ll collapse here with my body letting go before I let go.
“What’s in there?” I ask breathlessly but Phillip says nothing, only brings me closer to the cave. We’re at the mouth of the cave now and I fall to my hands and knees, coughing and wheezing. I bring my hand to my mouth to catch my cough, and when I look down I see the blood again, covering it. It’s now, there is no time left and my heart races in a panic. I’ll die now, I know. I will leave my body shortly and slip into oblivion and I fear it, like a child fears the bottom of a pool, or the ocean that he or she cannot see.
Phillip takes a knee next to me and I feel his breath in my ear.
“Everything you’re afraid of losing, all the answers you could not find are waiting for you in there. You don’t have any time left, Henrik and I can’t take you there myself. Go. Now!”
With what I know to be the last ounce of life in me, and while every fiber, every cell of my body resists, wanting the slip into the eternal dormancy, I push. Everything aches, is fatigued, my insides are shredded, my lungs feel filled with blood. I wonder if my skin will crack open and I will bleed out on this mountain top before I even see what it is in here that I left everything I ever needed for. I stumble wearily into the cave, where a low humming, an almost subsonic oscillation fills everything. It passes through my body and my mind and everything about my body blurs, is it that dark in here?
I stand before it, I know it. It is more beautiful than I could have ever imagined, and how could it be anything else? The secret to what Phillip Lacroix found up here, and guards, and protects. A door, or rather, a steel vault left ajar. I can no longer feel my insides, my lungs, my feet that have undoubtedly blistered. I pull the vault open and peer through before looking back at the cave’s mouth where Phillip stands. He waves to me gently. How can I thank you, Phillip? I wave back before turning to the vault door and step through.