They had discussed the question endlessly, fatiguing themselves late into many nights as if pushing against a wall in each other that would not move, his stubbornness meeting hers, and both heaving with effort, but the wall always unmoving. What to do when the wrong people discovered that he was there? Or, since there are no secrets in small towns, and it was certainly well known that he was there, what to do when the unhurried, gross mechanism of the distracted state finally ticked over to taking notice, when they came for him, as they surely would come some day?
“You will stay here,” he said.
“I will go with you,” she said.
And that was the core of the disagreement, when all the side-details were swept back, and the dilemma stood clean in its simplest lines, both insisting on the rightness of sacrifice for the other. Whether she would stay in the good place and live alone there or accompany him away to wherever he might go, to whatever hardships, when he had been captured and released like a wild animal relocated on the other side of the border. The danger reared over them every day, but they did not mention it for weeks at a time, weeks that went past in a taut wait, hollowed and, as if full of weeping, suspended behind a held breath, both knowing that the disagreement had not finished but paused, both covertly gathering points to put forward on the next occasion. And when they did mention it again, they argued into the dark tired hours. After arguing, they slept clinging to each other, and it was impossible to say whether any of this was weakness or strength, or whether, whatever the outcome of the argument, regardless of their decision or indecision, there would be any choice at all when the time came.
They walked through woods and beside the river, the great roaring vibrating up through the rocks of the riverbank as the earth responded to warmth by unlocking its vastness of water, which was and had always been the true end of winter, no matter the dates on the calendar.
The bear on the other side of the foaming water had awakened early, tugged back to consciousness by the tidal urge in his flesh, and had emerged dangerous from the earth as an irritable roused chthonic deity blinking at the light, his belly still thick with the unused store of last autumn's gorging, yet now already slat-ribbed hungry after some days above ground in poor forage. The bear mauled a fallen log, claws spraying the soft wet chips of rotting wood. Grunting, he licked up the thick grubs as they tried to wriggle into the dirt. The man and the woman watched from across the twenty meters of churned whitewater as the bear stopped tearing the log and leaned his weight toward them, lifting his snout into their warm smell before seeing them, shaking his jowls, setting his little black eyes on them, and considering, before he turned and loped off, heaving his shoulders into the bush.
It was mid-February in their section of northern Ontario, which this year meant the ice was thin and bright translucent at the centers of the warming lakes, softening to a margin of yellowish muddy slush near the shores. On the rivers, it was already broken to sliding white flats the width of a room and would be broken further on the rocks of downstream falls. where the many rivers' engorged throats roared in the narrows, with the millions of tons of water that had been locked inside the winter, as every year forever before. Both he, who had known the landscape for a mere ten or twelve years, and she, who had been born there, remembered when the thaw and the surging of the volumes of freed water had been a matter for April, or even the beginning of May. He remembered once, ten years ago, visiting there in the first days of knowing each other, rising early and finding the windshield of his car covered with ice in June.
He knew this and needed little else: that the landscape was the woman, and the woman was the landscape, that in knowing either he knew and loved the other, and there could be no separation. She was the rivers and the many round glacial lakes and the low thin-soiled hills skeletonized with outcrops of granite tilted on their sides by ancient cataclysm. She was the stands of aspen that glimmered throughout the summer, their ever-trembling leaves multiplying the light like swarms of bright-winged insects in the distance and the lithe pale trunks of the birch that he wanted to have in his hands as he might hold her shoulders during love-making. It was an astonishment that he had found her, and a further astonishment that she had wanted him. His past was a dreary assortment of rags and dead ends, of lives tried and not so much failed as abandoned before failure or success became a possibility, and so failed after all, as if walking each path only far enough to see that it did not lead in the right direction, though he could never then have named what the right direction might be, his years with failing newspapers in the South, his years teaching poorly and embarrassed before his students in the Midwest, years of aimlessness, and then here, as if finding not only the woman and the landscape but himself waiting for himself in the woman and the landscape. He was still astonished that he lay beside her at night, feeling always the forest, the lakes, and ubiquitous gray stone opening out beyond the dark windows in the night where he held her, both of them accepted into the landscape, and she unaccountably wanting him, her hands mouth breasts being also an invitation into the forest and lakes and stone, because she could not be known separately from them; they could not be known separately from her. And so, to allow her sacrifice would be to kill all reason for making the sacrifice, to make all null, to let her plunge herself into a void where for his sake she would die, if not in body then in reason for having a body.
They watched the bear consider whether they were accessible meat, dismiss them, and move without hurry or fear away from, disappearing among the trees. He smiled at her, her face rapt with the encounter, though she had seen many bears, sometimes closer and more of a threat than this one, just about every year of her life.
“We should have brought that can of bear spray,” he said, speaking loudly over the roaring of the water.
“Yeah, I guess so. I've never seen them awake this early before.”
“You take the spray with you if you run tomorrow, okay? It sure would suck if you were eaten. It'd suck for me, I mean.” He smiled again, making the old meager joke not because the joke was funny but because his making it yet again was funny.
They walked on, careful on the slick stones, mist over the roiling water catching the light and shattering it into colors. As always, the shadow of the future was in their thoughts. It was perfectly clear to him that she would have to stay here when whoever came to find him forced him back across the border that had been closed to travel for two years now, the blind fumbling nations stupider and more brutal than the bear, batting at each other, tearing fearfully at whatever moved, as if reeling in battle above the two small people who tried only to hide in some small pocket of brush and dodge the crashing clawed feet. Whatever happened, she had to remain here, among the trees and rocks and water.
This woman in this place was what the world meant, was what the rock and water and trees and thicknesses of moss and the birthing, suckling, dying beasts had forever been trying to say. It was a perfect selfishness on his part. Whatever he might lose, one consolation would be left in knowing that the unraveling ancient original world might persist for a time yet inside the woman and she inside of it.
It was not the day they saw the bear, but not long after. They both knew exactly what was happening when they came out of the woods and saw the RCMP car parked beside their house, blocking the dirt road that wound back out to the highway. The house was hardly a house, but rather a two-room camp that had once sheltered hunters who came up from the States in the fall to be coddled by guides deeper into the land and shoot moose. But no one was coming up from the States anymore, and the woman had been able to rent the isolated camp without putting the man's name on any documents and without answering many questions. They had shivered behind the thin walls in the winters and swatted black flies through the summers, happy except for the waiting and the knowledge that this time of reprieve was limited. Now, the limit having been reached, they stopped walking and looked at the car with the seal on the door. She gripped his hand so hard he could feel her bones grind against their joints. He felt a wave of adrenaline behind his sternum that urged him to hurry back into the woods to hide, to wait until the police left. Then they could run, hide somewhere else for another couple of years together, perhaps deeper into the North, where there were still no roads and almost no people. But running would have been futile. The only thing that had shielded him these two years had been anonymity, not wits or craft, only the circumstance that the state had not noticed him yet, and now that he had been noticed, there would be nowhere to go.
There were two officers in the car. As they came close, one got out and asked the man if he was his name. He admitted that he was.
“Do you have I.D.?” the officer asked, graying at the temples and going a little heavy around the waist, though not badly yet, and with the light melody of accent that meant he had long ago spoken French at home.
“Inside.” The man nodded toward the house. “I'll get it.” He started toward the door.
“I have to come with you. We can't have you going out the back,” the officer said and tried to make it a joke. “You know what this is? You aren't going to give us any trouble, are you?”
He glanced at the other officer, who was still sitting in the car, younger and bored and obscurely offended by being called upon for such duty. But the man, sixty and soft, knew that if he tried to run they would catch him with little trouble. If he resisted, they would subdue him effortlessly, and the woman would see him hit or knocked to the ground. There was nothing to do.
“No,” he said. “No trouble.”
They packed while the RCMP officer watched. He did not have to let them pack anything but did, twisting the wedding ring around and around on his finger with the other hand as he stood stiff in the door of their bedroom, seeming not to watch what they put into the bags, though of course the bags would be searched at the border before they would be allowed to cross. The man stood looking at the bedroom. There was little in it of himself and the woman after two years of living there, only a few of the woman's photographs printed and taped to the walls, stacks of books on the floor, leaning against the walls with their spines out, a low table for shells and seeds and short lengths of wood made smooth in the river that the woman had carried home from walks. The sparseness was not so much because they had lived restlessly, being aware that they were fugitives, as it was the result of a more-or-less conscious and mutual decision not to accumulate the sort of things that meant little to either of them. The woman watched the man look at the room.
The officer lifted his fist to his mouth and coughed.
“Sorry to rush you, but we have to get moving.”
The woman took two bags from the closet, as if she had been keeping them ready, and laid them on the bed.
“So, what should we take?” she asked.
“I don't know.” The man shrugged. “Clothes. Books. What else?”
“Don't forget the passports,” she said, as if they were preparing for an ordinary trip in the old days.
He had not planned properly and did not know what to pack. Nervous, laying his hands on things almost at random, he chose some clothes, the books he was reading currently. What else? He watched silently, his lips pressed into a pale line but without voicing any reproach or denial as she packed her own bag, seeming more sure, knowing what to take. She held up her camera and said, “We might have to sell this...” and put it in the bag and looked around for what else they needed. He wanted to say, No you aren't going you can't go I won't let you, but as she zipped the bag closed and looked at the waiting officer, her eyes narrowing without forgiveness on the intrusion as if only now noticing his presence and the officer's face lowering in shame, he didn't say anything.
“Will we go to your brother's?” she asked.
As they were leaving, just about to pull the door shut for what might be a long time, or even for him the last time, if the nations had their will—the door was stubborn and tight, swelling in the rain and in the spring shift of warmth and had scrubbed arcs in the board floor where it had to be forced, and he set the bags down and moved beside her to take the knob from her and rough-handle the door into its latch—she asked him if he had the passports.
“Ah, wait,” he said and went back inside, leaving her and the two mounties standing and came back quickly with the small blue plastic-bound booklets in his hand, the old-style passports, still valid but the old kind that hardly anyone still had, and slipped them into one of the bags and lifted the bags and said, “Ready.”
The RCMP allowed him to drive his car after assurances that he would not be foolish, the officers following close behind. They drove south toward Sault St. Marie and the absurd line that bisected the city on maps and had meant almost nothing until things became bad in the South and the nations quarreled over water and oil and over those lost people with weary, stunned faces who wanted to flee northward. The man and the woman believed that the bad things were going to become worse. Already, the Midwest was as hot and dry as Oklahoma or Texas had been in earlier times, and in Oklahoma and Texas the soil was standing up in the wind and blowing away into the desert, worse than it had done a hundred years before. Tens of thousands had died in the war along the Mexican border, and now the news programs were loud with more dying in Atlanta and California in the riots over water and space for refugees. Miami had drowned, and Chicago had mostly burned the sullen summer before, now only a patchwork of rich houses near the lakeshore and squares of ash and soot receding back toward the ruined farmland that didn't even remember having been prairie.
She asked again, “What will we do? Will we go to your brother's?”
“I guess so. But who knows what it will be like when we get there.”
“Mike will help us get settled. They say things aren't going to get any worse down south this year.” There was no reason to believe that, only the need to hope in her voice, like a bright shivering wire, when the only alternative was elegy. “We will be together.”
He held her small hand as they drove past good farms lifting themselves green from the short winter, patches of snow still around the shaded bases of trees on the lee-sides like creased, dirty cloth. In the cleared fields, black cows stood with their backs to the wind or circled feeders of hay. He would go to his brother in Kentucky, yes, the town of their childhood a nest of houses centered in the maze of worked-out coal mines and slate dumps green and luxuriant with kudzu, and would do something, something, any poor labor to sustain himself while he schemed a way back to the woman, who still thought she was coming with him, whom he had been too weak to leave behind.
They crossed the bridge over the river that contained the invisible line drawn longwise down its middle for hundreds of miles, the imaginary barrier breached every day with impunity by what fish remained in the water, by the screaming flocks of white gulls that rode the air currents all around the pillars and wind-humming struts of the bridge, its spans arching between the concrete pillars like the opening wings of a much larger bird perched upon the border, ready now to lift its fantastic steel anatomy away, frozen in the moment before the lifted wings would descend and take flight.
On the American side, all of the entry gates except one were barred, but the border guard standing beside it told them they would have to go inside, pointing out a place to park his car where it could be searched while he and the woman presented their papers and were cleared. The RCMP car was still behind them, and the two officers got out to follow them inside and make sure that the man was leaving the country.
The woman went first through the glass door marked with the insignia of the United States, and he paused to let the door close behind her and turned and said quickly to the RCMP officer, the older, ruddy-faced one who seemed a little ashamed of his work today, “They aren't going to let her through. I don't know how she is going to get home. I shouldn't have let her come, but I forgot about how she would get home.”
The officer looked at him, trying to guess what was going to happen inside.
“Okay. I'll make sure she gets home safely, drive her back myself if that is the only way.”
“You would do that?”
The mountie shrugged and nodded at the door, touched the man's elbow to guide him.
Inside, the woman waited with two suspicious border guards, though he didn't know if they were wary of him or of the two mounties following him. The older of the mounties asked if they had received the order expelling him from Canada, and one of them glanced at the screen in front of him and said they had. He handed his passport over the counter, and the guard examined it minutely. He was unable to use the thumbprint scanner that had replaced physical passports for most people because he and the woman had, for the past ten years, avoided the technological changes that had altered procedures.
The guard looked up, comparing his face with the photograph. “Where will you be going?” he asked.
“Is that where you live?”
“My brother lives there. I'm going to stay with him for a while and then find a place of my own.”
“Why were you in Canada?” These were the familiar questions posed upon venturing any border in the world, and he remembered them from the days when he had first met the woman and crossings were mere routine and almost unexamined by the authorities. But now and here, the words became ironic theater, with no one else in line or asking for permission to enter or leave the country, with the force of the Canadian state at his back, compelling his exit, and he and the woman small and inert tokens in the game between powers, as he was shuffled without will across the imaginary line. Of course, the guard knew his story and all of his answers, but the questions were a matter of form.
“I was living with my wife. She is Canadian.”
“For how long?”
“A little more than two years. I'm sure you have the exact date there,” he said, nodding at the screen the guard had angled away so that he could not read it.
The border guard opened his mouth fractionally, silently, and seemed about to lecture him on the etiquette of dealing with bureaucracy or on the rights and privileges of American citizenship and the necessity of all citizens pulling together to do their part during these difficult times instead of fleeing and hiding, but he looked at the mounties and closed his mouth thin-lipped and handed the man his passport.
He touched the woman's shoulder and walked through a turnstile in the long counter and was in the United States again.
Now the woman handed her passport to the guard, and the man watched her, could not stop himself from watching her, with grief and guilt. The guard opened her passport, and his face changed.
“I can't let you through,” he said.
“What do you mean?” she said, not understanding yet. “I'm going with my husband.”
“This isn't valid.” The guard held the little blue booklet open to show her that the page with her photograph and the information she needed for crossing had been roughly torn out. “You can't go through without a valid passport.”
The woman's face flushed and then all color drained away. “Please,” she said, and the man hated himself.
She began to cry silently, large tears spilling from her eyes and sliding down her face. “You son of a bitch,” she said to her husband, on the other side of the counter. He reached across for her and found her hand, could feel the strength of her sudden silent weeping tremble through her. The authorities from both countries turned away and allowed them to touch for a moment longer. Perhaps he would find a way back across the border in defiance of governments, but that would take time. Perhaps he had only delayed her departure from the good place and she would defiantly get another passport and come join him in the unraveling and wither there against his protests, but that would take time too.
For now, he imagined her return north again along the road they had just traversed, back into the small quiet house beside the gigantic roar of the river, the sharp loneliness of the bed tonight, but also that she might wake the next morning and step outside and take the path that led among the trees to nowhere in particular except to stones and nameless clearings and the living river, all around her the notes of the anonymous energetic flitting thumbprint-sized brown birds stripping the leftover winter seeds from patches of undergrowth, tight reddish buds of the trees, though coming early into the chill world, yet glittering in the new sun, its warmth soaking into her skin, warming her face and the backs of her hands as she turns toward it.
Two books of James Owens's poems have been published: An Hour is the Doorway (Black Lawrence Press) and Frost Lights a Thin Flame (Mayapple Press). His poems, stories, translations, and photographs appear widely in literary journals, including recent or upcoming publications in Superstition Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, The Cresset, Poetry Ireland Review, and The Stinging Fly. He lives in central Indiana and northern Ontario.
Stephen Linsteadt is a painter, poet, and writer. He is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection “The Beauty of Curved Space” (Glass Lyre Press 2016) and the non-fiction book “Scalar Heart Connection,” which is concerned with humanity’s connection, or lack thereof, with Nature, the Earth, and the global community. His poetry has appeared in Silver Birch Press, Synesthesia Literary Journal, Pirene’s Fountain, San Diego Poetry Annual, Saint Julian Press, Poetry Box, Spirit First, and others. He has published articles about heart centered consciousness in Whole Life Times, Awaken, Truth Theory, Elephant Journal, and others. Stephen’s paintings were featured in the poetry anthology Woman in Metaphor and have also appeared in Reed Magazine, Badlands Literary Journal, Birmingham Arts Journal, and on the cover of various poetry collections, and can be seen at StephenLinsteadtStudio.com.