KJ Howe: A warm welcome to Erica Ferencik, the author of The River at Night and Into the Jungle. Her harrowing new thriller is set in the unforgiving and eerie landscape of the Arctic Circle, where a brilliant linguist struggling to understand the apparent suicide of her twin brother ventures hundreds of miles north to communicate with a young girl who has been thawed from the ice alive. Welcome to the frozen tundra of the Arctic!
Early morning, my last day in Greenland.
Twenty yards up the hill, a polar bear lumbers down the scree. Little chalky puffs kick out in front of each huge paw; powerful shoulders shudder with every step. Bolt upright in my sleeping bag, I watch him through the flimsy screen window of my canvas tent, paralyzed with indecision. Take my next breath, or run out to find the guides and notify them? Sweat beads on my forehead along the rim of my wool hat. What did the instructions say? Don’t run. Don’t panic. Keep an eye on the bear at all times. But what else? My throat narrow as a straw, I sip my next breath and just watch the bear; I cannot move.
Massive, yellow-tinged, bloody-muzzled, he pauses at the electric fence just yards from me, a rickety-looking contraption surrounding our clutch of a dozen tents. He snuffles at its base without touching it. It’s then I move, but only to pull my shade further back, shoulders and arms stiff as boards. Does he smell me? Can he see me? His eyes dull black stones, velvet nose twitching and sparkling wet.Cold invades my flesh, runs up the sleeves of my long underwear, flashes across my bare neck, chilling me to the spine. I stiffen, taste a rotten egg smell on the air. The bear shifts his tonnage from side to side with mighty huffs as if building up to something, then swats at the fence. I hear a static snap. He growls, then rises up on his hind legs as if some godlike entity is lifting him and he is weightless. Ridiculous in my frail, fleshy softness, I drop my head back to gaze up at him. He is eight, nine feet tall. For long seconds he hangs like that, as if he could walk like a man if he chose, then he sways, until his ballast shifts and his great weight drops him back down on all fours.
He swings his huge head away from me. Turns and shambles along the fence toward the shore. Pauses at a slurry of small bergs grinding against each other at the beach before pivoting again, away from our encampment, the giant pale orb of his ass obscuring his low-slung head and neck. Black foot pads flash against all the white as he hugs the shoreline in a steady lope.
I unzip my tent and stumble out. No one is up yet. A rosy, pre-dawn glow outlines the barren mountains; glacial ice glitters blue and silver. Desperate for every second I can keep the bear in view, I throw on my coat and boots and race along the fence to the shore, but in moments he rounds the peninsula and is out of sight. Only the grinding sound of ice on ice, the pinking sky, the ecstatically clean air rasping in my throat.
I sit on a pile of rocks overlooking the bay, the water leathery with cold. Minutes pass; the sky shades to blue. Tiny arctic song-birds chirp and flit around me in flashes of gray and yellow. Soon, laughter jangles from the mess tent; a wisp of coffee brightens the air. I scan the clean line of horizon. It’s then I know that the bear is well and truly gone. Something sinks inside me. When will I ever see something like that again?
I am bereft.
During those brief moments in the bear’s presence, I lost awareness of my own existence. Being near him erased me, and I loved it. It beat any other sort of high: alcohol, sex, anything, everything. During those seconds, all my baggage fell away. My relentless self judgement, my fears and insecurities: all forgotten. There was simply: no me.
Because, my God, there he was…
Sadness surges in me again. It’s only a matter of time before the bear is seen and overtaken, like any that wander too close to Greenlandic towns. I pray that he will somehow lose the idea of approaching man, who will take his life in any number of ways.
Tents open. Heads poke out. I am seen on the bluff. Smiles tighten with concern, but I stay put. Delicious smells rise up to meet me: eggs, pancakes, bacon. A few fellow travelers call up to me, until they shrug and disappear into the mess tent.
But I don’t move. I need another minute with my ass on the hard cold rocks, another minute to relish my tininess, my insignificance in this landscape. I take a breath, close my eyes and conjure the bear. I wait until I can see each sunlight-tinged strand of fur, smell his wet coat; feel his hungry stare, the ground shake under his footfalls; taste my own fear and awe. I work until I feel the grooves of memory deepen and stretch to sear those sensations into me.
Until I know for certain I can call him back at will. It’s only then, that I get to my feet and make my way to the sound of human voices.
Erica Ferencik is the author of The River at Night, Into the Jungle, and GIRL IN ICE (March 2022). She is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Boston University. Her work has appeared in Salon and The Boston Globe, as well as on National Public Radio.