The adventurer had been dying for thirty-seven hours now, though her death had begun several weeks before. It was no one’s fault but her own. Her hand slipped, the knife lost purchase on the hard wood of the log, the blade bit the tender webbing of her thumb. The cut bled, but it wasn’t deep—barely a little slit, nothing more than you’d get chopping carrots in a kitchen, and were the adventurer at home, she would simply have bandaged it and kept moving. But the cut wouldn’t stay closed. When she gathered firewood or hauled her gill net out of the river, it unstuck and opened like a little mouth, catching everything it could. Because of her plan, she hadn’t packed the medical kit, and so there were no antibiotics. She rinsed the cut in boiled water and covered it with duct tape, but her skin turned hot and red veins flared around the edges of the wound. After a time, she became too weak to stand, and that was that.
It was the month in the arctic when the sun doesn’t set, and outside, the tundra was exploding in a manic burst of growth. Draba flowers slowly unfurled from the crevices in the rocks, spreading butter-yellow petals toward the sky. Their tiny, dark green leaves, bristling with filaments, soaked in the light. Rosettes of parraya dotted the sandy cliffs, magenta blossoms glowing against the gray of their thick, fleshy stems. Puffs of cotton grass blew in the ocean breeze like little rabbit tails, and purple saxifrage crept across the chalky soil. The shrub willows soaked up groundwater and daylight, and joyfully churned out the sugar that would sustain them through the winter. An elk yanked a tuft of grass from the cleft in a stony cliff and chewed. A colony of lichen extended another tendril. A cod gently tucked her cluster of delicate eggs beneath an outcropping on the shore, trusting that they would be found by the right partner.
The adventurer, busy dying, saw none of this, but it still happened.
The adventurer had spent a good deal of time thinking about where she wanted to die. In her perfect dreams, she always died in the forest, looking up at clusters of pine needles and the blue sky. When she hiked with Alicia, she always insisted that at some point they lie down on their backs, so she could enjoy the capillary pattern of branches and leaves intersecting and tangling across the clouds. The best death would be, in her mind, a slow melting into the soil, and the dissolution of her bones and muscles would feel like easing into a warm bath. The adventurer never told Alicia that when the two of them lay in the woods, she was storing images for later, laying the groundwork to imagine herself away.
Alicia was not the dying type. The adventurer knew this was a meaningless classification (“aren’t we all the dying type?”), but there are people who seem closer to leaving this world than the rest of us, either because they hold too much light, or because they’re already halfway to another place. Alicia did not have the kind of smile that belonged on a poster for a murdered girl. She was good at reading maps and evaluating online reviews, and she always kept a fully stocked emergency kit in their car. She had strong knuckles and gave excellent massages, and she was not prone to the dramatic flights of fancy that plagued the adventurer. If she’d lived long enough to know that the adventurer had begun thinking of herself as “the adventurer,” she’d have laughed hard enough to wake the neighbors. “Okay,” she would have said, catching her breath. “All right, go outside. Touch grass.”
The two of them once spent a warm May Saturday canvassing for a mayoral candidate they both believed in, bopping around a farmers' market and talking to whoever would listen. Alicia’s strategy was to ask strangers if she could pet their dogs, and then rattle off campaign talking points while she scratched behind the dog’s ears. Each time she did it, the adventurer’s scalp tightened in sympathetic anxiety at the sheer brazenness of it all. The strangers, for the most part, didn’t even get angry—they listened and nodded, and in most cases, they smiled. One man took a stack of flyers and joined them, holding his golden retriever to heel as he excitedly chased down more strangers to talk to. One woman yelled, “I hope your guy fucking loses!” and slapped Alicia’s flyers out of her hands, then turned and frog-marched her Australian shepherd back in the direction they’d come from. As the adventurer knelt to collect the flyers from the ground, Alicia began laughing. “I hope your guy fucking loses!” she wheezed, her laughter big enough to wash away all of the adventurer’s protective worry and indignation. “Did you hear that? I hope your guy fucking loses!”
For months, the two of them would say that in incongruous moments, trying to catch each other off guard. While Alicia rinsed beans for chili, the adventurer hugged her from behind, leaned in close, and said, “I hope your guy fucking loses.” After sex, while caressing the adventurer’s face, Alicia whispered “I hope your guy fucking loses!” On their anniversary, while cutting into a celebratory blueberry pie, they both said it at the same time. They dissolved into laughter and couldn’t stop for minutes, their howls eventually mellowing to gasps, and then to giggles. Together, without speaking, they decided the joke had run its course perfectly, and they would never say it again.
In the time since the adventurer had lain down in her shelter with her swollen hand, the sun hadn’t moved. The wind had changed, and was carrying the smell of an algae bloom inland from the shore. That algae floated in a spectacular mass, swelling and falling with the currents, its red blossoms bobbing in the sparkling water. As the waves coursed onto the shore, they carried algae with them. The waves swelled and swelled and folded and crashed, and the algae slickened the rocks and spread, sticking to the stone. The remnants that had been carried far up when the tide was high and been left when the tide lowered now dried in the warmth of the sun. The algae disintegrated into red smears, and their tacky skin caught granules of sand.
The adventurer’s shelter really was beautiful. Its ribs were solid branches that she’d gathered from miles around and fashioned into an A-frame, tied together with rope from her kit. She’d stacked thick swaths of moss to form a roof, thatching the lush green cushions like shingles to insulate her from the Arctic cold. She’d swept out the lichen and packed the earthen floor, built a fire pit with a chimney, chopped and stacked piles of firewood against the far wall of the shelter. She’d done such a good job.
The empty medical supply box sat primly in the corner, its dull steel latch catching the sunlight. Suddenly, the adventurer vomited.
“Oh no,” she said, throat full of mucus. She spat out another glob of bile and wiped her nose, which was running with the thin water that had come up from her stomach. The vomit had splattered across her makeshift headrest onto the dirt floor, and was now sinking into the sandy earth. The smell of it made her insides roil again.
She reached for the zipper of her sleeping bag. Her fingers felt like sausages that had been grafted onto her hands, impossible to bend or control. She pinched at the tiny silver fixture, and managed to grasp it. She tried to push it down, and it slipped away. Her neck felt like water from the exertion of holding up her head, and she let it fall back down. A bit of vomit soaked into her hair. Tears filled her eyes.
The cut had spoken. The adventurer looked down at her left hand. A fine purple lace of capillaries radiated out from the duct tape around her thumb. The swelling had grown great enough to crack her skin, and she could see the end of the fissure peeking out from beneath the tape. The adventurer brushed the tape with her right hand and felt the crater of the wound, hot under the plastic.
“What’s wrong?” the cut said again.
The adventurer couldn’t answer. Despair bloomed from the pit of her belly and twisted up her spine, wrapping little tendrils around her lungs and heart. She tried to scream it out but couldn’t manage more than a gasp, and then a sob.
“I’m sorry you’re in so much pain,” said the cut.
The cut watched the adventurer cry.
“This is what you wanted, right?” said the cut.
The adventurer couldn’t find a voice. She tried to pull the air back into her lungs.
“Didn’t you want to die?” said the cut. “Wasn’t that the plan?”
“I didn’t think it would be like this,” the adventurer said. She took a shaky inhale and held it, then let it go as slowly as she could. “I don’t know,” she said.
The light outside shifted, sending a little sunbeam bouncing into the back corner of the shelter.
“I bet that little sunbeam will be there for a while,” said the cut. “With the sun not moving and all. The sun is where it is so that little sunbeam will stay where it is, too.”
“How long is this going to take?” asked the adventurer.
“I’m not sure,” said the cut. “Maybe a while, maybe not.”
The adventurer said nothing.
“I’m sorry,” said the cut. “I wish I had answers for you.”
A mouse scuffled in a pile of dead leaves at the base of a fir tree. He dug his little paws into the decomposing muck—sometimes, you can find seeds there. A twig snapped. The mouse sat up with a start, all of his muscles pulled tight and ready to shoot him into the underbrush. The open clearing was airy, light, and still. The mouse returned to his digging.
As a gust of wind knocked a few needles from the fir tree, the mouse reached his paw into the dark mulch at its roots and found a soft green pine cone, fallen before it was ready. He snatched it and shoved it into his cheek, then turned and sprinted toward a cluster of shrub willows, amazed by his own luck.
Alicia’s death lasted for seven months. The majority of it took only a second—bicycle, car door, her head, the grill of a Ford F-150, then the cement, like the worst Rube Goldberg machine. When the adventurer arrived at the emergency room and saw Alicia and her new tubes, she was certain there was no way Alicia could possibly be alive anymore. The doctor told her that death was likely imminent, that they could be transferred to a room in the inpatient ward and wait out Alicia’s last moments there. But the sun came up, and Alicia was still alive. The adventurer made her confession and her apology and her “I Love Yous,” because in her own death research she’d learned that those are the things people regret never saying. The hours turned into days, and then a week, and then they went to hospice, and then a month went by, then two.
Every day after work, the adventurer went straight to the hospice facility and sat with Alicia, massaging her feet with lotion and reading her the trashy mystery novels she loved. She brought an iPad and set it up by Alicia’s bed and played episodes of Drag Race for Alicia’s unconscious body. She watched Alicia’s face swell and turn purple with edema, her body become bloated and fully unrecognizable. Sometimes Alicia’s eyes would open and slowly loll in her skull, as though she were surveying the room. Sometimes she’d move her mouth and bite the air, or her hand would twitch. The adventurer learned how to clean her trach and often caught herself fantasizing about some miraculous total recovery. Several times she caught herself wishing that Alicia would just let go and die already.
Of course, the adventurer did an online fundraiser. She wept as she tried to write a paragraph explaining why Alicia’s life mattered, and why strangers should give ten of their own personal dollars to provide her a dignified death. After six months, she went through the recertification process, filling out paperwork to beg that Alicia be allowed to remain in hospice even though she hadn’t died quickly enough. When she finally went, quietly and without fanfare, the adventurer returned to their apartment and broke every plate in the kitchen.
The adventurer decided she didn’t want her name anymore. She sold their bed and slept on the floor, and every night she dreamed about pine needles and the sky. She began reading about northern Canada and the arctic. She tried to see how many days she could go without eating, staring down her body’s animal desire to stay alive in a game of chicken. She stopped going to work and answering texts. She sold everything she could and bought a large backpack, rope and a good knife, a sleeping bag and a parka. She bought a medical supply kit and dumped the contents in the trash, filling it instead with peanuts and granola bars. She booked a plane trip to Yellowknife in the Northern Territories, then bribed a helicopter pilot to take her to an unnamed spot on the coastline. She built her shelter and set traps for animals, and within two weeks she cut herself.
Outside, a bird that the adventurer didn’t recognize was chirping. Its little voice was keen and shrill, laced with vibrato, and it sent shock waves of pain through the adventurer’s skull.
“It’s probably trying to find a girlfriend,” said the cut.
“It’s exhausting and I hate it,” said the adventurer.
The wind lifted a leaf like a tiny paper airplane, and sent it sailing into the shelter. It landed in the adventurer’s vomit.
“How’re you feeling?” the cut asked.
“What kind of question is that?”
“I don’t know,” the cut said. “I know how I feel, but I’m not you.”
“Not good,” the adventurer said. “I feel bad.”
Exhaustion had set in, and she was out of patience. “I’m hungry,” she said.
“Hm.” The cut sounded pensive. “I don’t think that’s true.”
“Is that it?”
“You are not supposed to talk,” the adventurer said. “Grievous injuries aren’t meant to have voices. I’d appreciate it if you killed me quietly.”
“I’m not trying to kill you,” said the cut.
“Well, you are,” said the adventurer.
“I didn’t ask to be born.” The adventurer felt the cut throb beneath the duct tape, and her stomach twisted on itself. “I’m just here, like you are. I’ve already apologized,” the cut said. “I told you I was sorry, and I meant it. But we’re in this together, and I feel like I should keep you company.”
The adventurer looked up at the whorls of moss roots that made up her ceiling. They swirled together, blurring and becoming clear again.
“I should find my way outside,” she said.
“It might be too late for that.”
“I should do it anyway,” she said again. “Maybe I could crawl.”
“You could always try,” said the cut. “I’m not stopping you.”
The bird chirped again, splitting the air with its voice. The adventurer closed her eyes.
On a rock by the cliffside, a colony of lichen was slowly spreading its roots. For centuries it had been there, extending its tiny fruiting bodies and collecting what sunlight it could with the algae in its branches. It was not the oldest living being in the world, but it had lived a long and simple life. It rationed its sugar to make it through the cold and sucked tiny bits of moisture from the crevices in the rock. It now covered the entire rock, a thick and vital blanket. It breathed fresh ocean air through its stomata, and it was the pinnacle of resilience. Lichen can live through the very worst.
Beneath its branches, a little beetle was foraging. It grabbed a stalk in its pincers and ripped up its roots. It munched and swallowed, and felt the weight of its full belly.
The adventurer and Alicia’s worst fight was over something related to the apartment. It had lasted three days, and afterward, the adventurer hung on to a tiny grudge for an entire month. Before the accident, it still lay in her head at the ready, a firearm to be deployed in a yet-to-be-determined future argument. She couldn’t remember it now, though.
Before the accident, the adventurer and Alicia enjoyed going to a coffee shop around the corner from their home. On Saturdays, they would nestle at a tiny table in the corner by a window filled with plants, and watch pedestrians walk past. The adventurer would always get banana bread with chocolate chips, and Alicia would always make a face. “I don’t know how you eat that,” she’d say. “It’s too sweet.” She drank her coffee black. Together they did the crossword—the adventurer was excellent at the clues that came in the form of a question, and Alicia always figured out the theme of each puzzle. Sometimes they brought books and read in silence, and Alicia would tuck her ankle behind the adventurer’s. When it was time to leave, they rarely had to say it aloud.
The last movie they watched together was the 1944 film Gaslight. Alicia couldn’t stop joking about how profoundly British Angela Lansbury looked.
The last gift that Alicia gave the adventurer was a cookbook from the 1970s that she’d found on the street.
The last meal they’d shared was mushroom lasagna.
The cut had moved from her hand to the corner of the shelter. The adventurer turned her head and her eyes to see it, but the cut darted out of her line of sight regardless of where she looked. She could feel its heat radiating from the walls. Sweat collected in her armpits.
“Do you feel like you got what you wanted?” the cut asked.
“No,” she said.
The adventurer tried to wipe the sweat from her face, but found that she couldn’t lift her good hand.
“This isn’t the way I thought it would be,” she said.
“What did you expect?”
“I thought I’d freeze to death. That’s what I was hoping for. Part of me thought I wouldn’t die at all.” The adventurer laughed. “Can I tell you what I thought would happen?”
“Of course,” said the cut.
“In my head I imagined that I would get here and discover the part of me that is an animal. Like I could just, ta-da! peel back all the layers of socialization and any accompanying pain and find something true and honest and uncomplicated. I fantasized about struggle and starvation, and I imagined all the fat on my bones slowly melting away. I dreamed about being cold and single-minded and concerned with nothing but my next meal. I can’t be sad if I’m starving and don’t remember how to speak.”
The edges around the cut pulsed. “I’m not sure that’s true.”
“No shit.” The adventurer smiled. “Want to know what’s even worse?”
“I want to know whatever you want to tell me.”
“I imagined managing to build a cabin, somehow. I know it’s dumb, I don’t have any tools, but in my head I could do it. I really, honestly imagined a fireplace, and rugs—don’t laugh at me.”
“I would never laugh,” said the cut.
The adventurer was already laughing, though. “My stupid shit brain, I can’t even believe—nobody lives here for a reason, but I, an asshole, thought I could what, make a homestead?” The adventurer was laughing so hard that tears welled at the corners of her eyes. “I don’t think I even believed this consciously, I didn’t . . . I wasn’t here fantasizing about it, or drawing diagrams. But at the core of my little death mission, I thought I was making . . . did I think I was making a new life? Is that what I thought I was doing this whole time?”
“You’re too hard on yourself.”
“I didn’t even last a month,” she said, trying to catch her breath. “I’m going to die because I tripped.” The sunbeam on the back corner of the cabin was widening. The adventurer noticed her legs were numb.
“I thought I’d last longer,” she said. “I really believed I was stronger than this.”
“I’m no expert,” said the cut, “but it doesn’t seem like a matter of strength to me. Only a matter of luck. You got unlucky.”
“I honestly used to think I could survive the apocalypse,” said the adventurer. “‘The apocalypse.’ I don’t know if I thought I could live through a tsunami or something. I think if you presented me with specifics, I would have a very different outlook, depending on the details. But a cutthroat Hollywood situation, the kind of thing that would involve driving from city to city and scrounging in dead houses and harvesting mushrooms and such? Of course I could live through that. I thought all it would take was perseverance.”
“You don’t feel that way now, though.”
The adventurer laughed again. “No,” she said. “I guess I don’t.”
By the coast, a snow crab scuffled in the sand. She combed through the sand with her legs, sending clouds of grit into the water. With the pincers by her mouth she grabbed at whatever floated up—bits of shells, flakes of seaweed, the fragmented carapace of a dead sea worm. She was meticulous, combing every inch of ocean bottom to find all the food she could.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted movement.
A small white egg sac floated on the tiny currents that flowed around the rocks, bumping lightly against its secret crevice. Its opalescent skin caught the watery light and refracted it into splinters of blue and green. The snow crab darted toward it, scrambling over the sand. She anticipated the sweet pop of eggs in her pincers, the firm skin breaking to reveal soft, runny insides that tasted like life itself.
The cut was on the ceiling now, blazing and red as a star. At last, it had revealed itself. Deep purple blood shifted in its glistening mouth, and lumps of pus shone around its edges like little pearls. It was so bright that the shelter glowed as though filled with daylight. When the adventurer closed her eyes, it was all she could see.
“Why did you choose this place?” the cut said. “Why didn’t you do something easier?”
“I didn’t want to leave a mess.”
The edges of the cut fluttered, as if in thought.
“That makes sense, right?” the adventurer said. “I mean it’s just inconsiderate to make someone clean up a body.”
“I don’t know that I can agree.”
“I thought, if I die out here, maybe I can be useful.” The ceiling of the shelter was shining, the roots of the moss now glittering like shards of crystal. They shifted from swirls to triangles to ellipses, their edges vibrating. “At a minimum I wouldn’t leave a trace. Maybe something could eat my body. I could become dirt.”
“Do you still feel that way?”
The adventurer’s stomach lurched again.
“What would Alicia have thought?” the cut said.
“I don’t know.” The adventurer swallowed, trying to keep the bile in her stomach. “She would have been angry.”
“She would have been.” The cut’s center morphed from purple to black and back again.
“Good thing she’s dead, then,” said the adventurer. “She can’t get mad at me if she’s dead.”
The cut’s purple veins pulsed. “Has anyone ever told you you’re selfish?” it said.
The adventurer couldn’t hold it down. She tried to lift her head, to send the vomit away, but she couldn’t move her neck. It bubbled up from her throat and ran down her cheek in a hot waterfall. “I need to get outside,” she said.
“I think it’s too late for that,” said the cut.
A seal pulled its body from the water to the shore. It rolled onto the rocky beach and felt the sun on its skin, drying the frigid water of the ocean into a thin film of salt. It closed its eyes and relished the softness of the summer air.
A squirrel, rushing too quickly through the shrub willows, tripped one of the adventurer’s traps. A sharp stick, which she had whittled into a spike, plunged into the squirrel’s brain, and he fizzled in a quick burst of static.
The arctic cod, now in the open ocean, was startled by a sudden disturbance in the water. It beat its tail against the ocean current and darted forward, heart racing from fear. Nothing happened.
The cut held the adventurer’s hand. Its heat had faded to a gentle warmth that bloomed in the adventurer’s belly and flowed through her body like a golden wave. The adventurer closed her eyes and saw the sky. She trickled into the ground like rainwater.
A wolverine skirted the strange structure beneath the tree. For a long time there had been a scent coming from it, something sharp and predatorial that told the wolverine to keep her distance. But it had faded to something earthy, and the normal green leaf-rot smell of the forest had come back. She waddled across the clearing, tail bouncing lazily behind her. Her belly was getting heavier by the day, but she did not struggle to walk. Her muscles were strong and good, and she was a natural at motherhood.
She poked her nose through the entrance and sniffed. On the ground was meat, swollen and stiff but still fresh enough. She took a bite and felt the skin pop beneath her teeth. It wasn’t good, but it felt heavy in her belly, and it was enough to satisfy the burning hunger that came with the tiny babies growing inside her. She took another bite and chewed. When the sun set, and the snow came again, she did not die, and this was a fortunate thing.