It wasn't that easy, of course. Zeb cut small chunks and used a rustedwire skewer, and also gave a lecture to himself — This is Nutrition , capital N! You think you'll make it out of here without Nutrition? Nonetheless, there were some swallowing issues. Luckily he'd had a lot of practise in distancing himself from things that went into his mouth, most recently the grub at Bearlift — some of which probably was grub, a popular protein-enhancer in dried and ground form.
But his first tests of that nature had come earlier, one of the Rev's instructive punishments being that those with potty-mouths should be forced to eat the contents of said potty. How not to smell, how not to taste, how not to think: it was like the See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil blind, deaf, and mute monkeys who sat on the miniature oil drum on his mother's dressing table with their paws clamped over their upper orifices, providing a role model for her that she was happy to follow. Have you been sick? What's that on your chin? He said, You're a dog, eat your own vomit. He pushed my head into the . . . Now, Zebulon , don't make up stories. You know your father wouldn't have done such a thing! He loves you!
Slam the trapdoor on that one, roll a boulder. More to the point was how to stay warm. There was some crumbling tarpaper in the corner, not much use but some. He spread it on the floor, hoping it would act as a heat-retaining vapour barrier. Dry socks would have helped; he made a little teepee of sticks, draped the damp socks over it near the dying embers of his fire, hoping they wouldn't scorch. Then he heated several medium-sized stones in the coals. He bundled his cold feet inside the down vest, unfolded the two space-age reflecting survival blankets, his own and Chuck's, scrunched himself up inside them, added the hot stones underneath. Keep the core warm, that was Lesson One. Keep the feet from dropping off, always a good plan going forward. Remember that hands without fingers are not much use for tasks requiring small-muscle skills, such as doing up your bootlaces.
Was there grunting outside the bunkie in the dim hours, was there scratching? No door on the place, anything could walk right in. Wolverine, wolf, bear. Maybe the smoke kept them off. Did he sleep? He must have. It got light soon enough.
He woke up singing.
Roamin' here, roamin' there, roamin' in my underwear, I got a sweetie covered in hair,
She's all pussy everywhere . . .
Some hoarse, twisted stagtime bellowing event. Energizing, though. Instant man-cave bonding. "Shut up," he told himself. "You want to die frivolously?" "Don't much matter, nobody's looking," he riposted.
His socks weren't dry, but they were drier. What a fool, he should've taken Chuck's socks from his gone but not forgotten fishbelly feet. He put the socks on, folded up the survival blankets, and stuffed them into his pockets — damn things would never go back into their little envelopes once you took them out — packed up his Practical Pig toolguy trinkets and the remains of his picnic, then took a cautious look out the door.
Mist everywhere. Grey as an emphysema cough. Just as well because now the flying visibility would be low, a good deterrent for airborne snoopers. Though not so good for Zeb himself because now he wouldn't know where he was going, as such. But surely it was a case of follow the yellow brick road, minus the bricks and with no Emerald City at the end.
There were only two possible directions: northeast to Norman Wells, rough going on a decaying track jumbled with glacier-dumped boulders; or southwest to Whitehorse, through the chilly, misty mountain valleys. Both of those destinations were far, far away, and if he were making odds he wouldn't have bet on himself. But the Whitehorse route hooked up on the Yukon side with a real road, one that could handle motorized vehicles. More chance of a hitchhike pickup there. Or something. Or other.
He set off through the mist, keeping to the degraded gravel surface. If this were a movie he'd be fading to white, then gone, and the credits would be rolling up over him. But not so fast, not so fast, he was still alive. "Enjoy the moment," he urged himself.
I love to go a-wandering, along the bums of sluts,
And as I go I love to sing, although they drive me nuts. Fuckeree, fuckera, fuckeree, fucker ah hah hah hah hah ha . . .
"You are not taking this seriously," he scolded. "Oh shut up," he replied. "I've heard that a lot." Talking to yourself, not so positive. Doing it out loud, even worse. Delirium had not set in, however; though how could he be sure?
The mist burnt off at eleven a.m. or so; the sky turned blue; a wind began to blow. Two ravens were shadowing him, high in the air, dipping to eyeball him, passing rude remarks about him back and forth. They were waiting for something to begin eating him so they could pitch in and grab a snack: not so deft at making the first incisions, ravens, they always hunted with hunters. He ate a Joltbar, he came to a stream with a washed-out bridge, he had to choose: wet boots or crippled bare feet? He chose the boots, removing his socks first. The water was cold, with an X for Xtra. "This freezing sucks," he said, and it did.
Then he had to choose between putting the socks back on and getting them wet or the dubious delight of hiking in boots only, sure to accentuate the blister he already had. The boots themselves would soon be borderline useless.
"You get the picture," he says. "On and on. It was that kind of thing all day, with the wind blowing and the sun shining."
"How far had you gone?" says Toby.
"How to measure? Out there, miles don't count. Let's just say not far enough," he says. "And by then I was running on empty."
He spent the night hunkered down between two boulders, shivering like a timber despite the two crackly metal survival blankets and the fire he'd made from dead willow and creekside mini-birch.
By the time the next pink sunset had come round he'd run out of food. He'd stopped worrying about bears; in fact, he was longing to meet one, a big fat one he could sink his teeth into. He dreamed of little globules of fat sifting down through the air like snow, the pellet-shaped kind of snow, not the flakes; he dreamed of it settling down on him, into his bodily creases and crannies, plumping him up. The brain was 100 per cent cholesterol, so he needed the boost, he hungered for it. He could visualize the inside of his body, the ribs encasing a hollow, a hollow lined with teeth. If he stuck out his tongue in such a fatfall the air would taste like chicken soup.
In the gloaming there was a caribou. It looked at him, he looked at it. Too far away for him to shoot, too fast for him to chase. Those things could skim over the top of the muskeg as if on skis.
The next day was bright and almost hot; things in the distance were wobbly at the edges, like a mirage. Was he hungry any more? Hard to tell. He could sense words rising from him, burning away in the sun. Soon he'd be wordless, and then would he still be able to think? No and yes, yes and no. He'd be up against it, up against everything that filled the space he was moving through, with no glass pane of language coming between him and not-him. Not-him was seeping into him through his defences, through his edges, eating away at form, sending its rootlets into his head like reverse hairs. Soon he'd be overgrown, one with the moss. He needed to keep moving, preserve his outlines, define himself by his own shockwaves, the wake he left in the air. To keep alert, to stay attuned to the, to the what? To whatever might come at him and stop him dead.
At the next washed-out bridge a bear congealed from the low shrubs flanking the river. It was not there and then it was there, and it reared up, startled, offering itself. Was there growling, a roar, a stench?
No doubt, but Zeb can't remember. He must have sprayed its eyes with the bear spray and shot it point-blank, but there's no photo record.
Next thing he knew he was butchering it, hacking away at it with his inadequate knife. Blood up to the wrists, then bonanza: the meat, the fur. The two ravens stood at a distance, making R noises, waiting their turn: gobbets for him, followed by pickings for them.
"Not too much," he told himself, chewing, recalling the dangers of stuffing yourself on an empty stomach, especially on something so rich and supersaturated. "Little at a time." His voice came to him muffled, as if he was telephoning himself from underground. What did this taste like? Who cared? Having eaten the heart, could he now speak the language of bears?
Picture him the next day or the next or sometime, halfway there, wherever there is, though he retains the belief that it is in fact somewhere. He's got new footgear — wraps of hide, fur side in, tied with crisscross strips like a fashion item in a cave-man comic. He's got a fur cape, he's got a fur hat, and all of it doubles as sleeping gear, heavy and stinky. He's porting a meat cargo and a big wad of fat. If he had the time he'd render the fat into grease and smear it on himself, but as it is he injects it into his mouth like bite-sized fuel. And it is fuel, he's burning it; he can feel the heat of it travelling through his veins. "Goodbye to care," he sings. The ravens are sticking with him, shadowing him. Now there are four of them: he's the Pied Piper of ravens. "There's a bluebird on my windowsill," he sings to them. His mother went in for cheerful, upbeat retro crap. That, and perky hymns. And now, coming towards him along the relatively smooth stretch
of road ahead, far in the distance, there's a cyclist. Some rugged mountain bike adventurer out of his mind on endorphins. They pass through Whitehorse from time to time, augment their kits at the outfitter stores, head for the hills to test their endurance mettle on the Old Canol Trail. They pedal as far as the bunkie — that's their usual trajectory. Then they pedal back, thinner, stringier, madder. Some bring tales of alien abductions, some of talking foxes, some of human voices on the tundra at night. Or semi-human voices. Trying to lure them.
No, two cyclists. One quite a bit ahead. Lovers' tiff, he speculates. The normal thing would be to stick together.
Useful things, mountain bikes. Also pannier packs and whatever might be in them.
Zeb hides in the creekside shrubbery, waits for the first one to go past. A woman, blond, sporting the thighs of a stainless-steel nutcracker goddess in her shiny skintight cyclewear. Under her streamlined helmet she's squinting into the wind, frowning fit to kill with her skimpy eyebrows over her trendy little wind/sun goggles. Away she goes, bumpity-bump, ass taut as an implanted tit, and now here comes the guy, keeping his distance, morose, mouth down at the corners. He's pissed her off, he's feeling the whip. He's burdened with a misery Zeb can alleviate.
"Arrgh," Zeb yells, or words to that effect. "Arrgh?" says Toby, laughing.
"You know what I mean," says Zeb.
Short form: he leaps out of the bushes and onto the guy, making a growly noise, in his bear-fur coverings. There's a strangled yelp from the target, then a metallic toppling. No need to bash the poor sucker, he's out cold anyway. Just take the cycle with its twin saddle packs and make off.
When he looks behind, the girl has stopped. He can picture her recently clamped mouth an open O, the O of woe. Now she'll be sorry she tongue-lashed the sad bugger. She'll thunder-thigh back, kneel and minister, rock and cradle, dab at scrapes, shed tears. The lad will come to and gaze into her ungoggled eyes, the simp, and all will be forgiven, whatever it was. Then they will use her cellphone to call for aid.
What will they say? He can imagine.
When he's out of sight, down a hill, and around a corner, he goes through the saddlebags. What a trove: a poker hand of Joltbars, some sort of quasi-cheese product, an extra windcheater, a mini-stove with fuel cylinder, a pair of dry socks, spare boots with thick soles — too small, but he'll cut out the toes. A cellphone. Best of all, an identity: he can use some of that. He mashes the cellphone and hides it under a rock, then makes his way sideways over the tundra, squish squish, bike and all.
Luckily there's a palsa that's been ripped open, no doubt by an enraged grolar in search of evasive ground squirrels. Zeb digs himself and the bike into the moist black earth, leaving a vantage point between clods. After a long damp wait, here comes the 'thopter. It hovers over where the two young cyclists must be hugging and shivering and thanking their lucky stars, and down goes the ladder, and, after a time, up go the lovers, and then they're carried away in the slow, low 'thopter, flippity-flop, blimpity-blimp. What a story they will have to tell.
And they tell it. Once in Whitehorse, having shed his bearskin wrappings some time back and sunk them in a pond, having changed into the fresh gear provided by Fortune, having grabbed a hitchhike, having freshened up considerably and altered his hairstyle, having hacked certain features of the cyclist's identity and run some cash through a backdoor known to him by memory, and having swiftly topped up his own cash flow thereby, he reads all about it.
Sasquatches are real after all, and they've migrated to the Mackenzie Mountain Barrens. No, it couldn't have been a bear because bears can't ride mountain bikes. Anyway, this thing was seven feet tall with eyes almost like a man's, and it smelled terrible, and it showed signs of almost-human intelligence. There's even a picture, taken on the girl's cellphone: a brown blob, with a red circle around it to signal which of the many brown blobs in the picture is the significant one.
Within a week, Bigfoot-believers from around the world have formed a posse and mounted an expedition to the site of the discovery, and are combing the area for footprints and tufts of hair and piles of dung. Soon, says their leader, they will have a batch of definitive dna, and then the scoffers will be shown up for the corrupt, fossilized, obsolete truth-deniers that they are.
From MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood. Copyright 2013 by Margaret Atwood. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese.