What are you working on right now?
Earlier this year I finished a novel, The Unfinished World, which this is an excerpt from. Right now I'm working on reading (and in some cases rereading) my way through Proust, Woolf, and Zweig, which was the only goal I set for myself this summer - though I have been writing an essay or poem here or there, and I just write a new story about a murderous family of con men in the Old West, because, you know, when you finally figure out how the story goes, you have to sit your ass down and write it, so I did. But other than that, just reading like it's my job - and maybe playing some video games here or there.
Cedric was older than Set, and —as Pru plainly put it—had never been easy on the eyes. He was, instead, gifted with a passion for the wild pursuit of the world’s last uncovered places. In those heady days of Antarctic exploration—the age of men like Amundsen and Shackleton—Cedric, too, had distinguished himself. He’d been in high demand for his survey work, and mapped the Antarctic coastline between Cape Adare and Mount Gauss. Before the family moved to New York, he’d dined with the great men of science at 1 Savile Row, had given lectures in London for the Royal Geographical Society.
But that was before the world was laid bare, the last dust blown loose from the darkest corners. Now there were no secret places, only secret people, and the demands of the public for those secrets. The public couldn’t get enough of the exoticism of the east, the hot wilds of the south, the strange remoteness of the north. Cedric, who’d lived among the native people and depended on them for guides, for trade, and often for protection, did not like way the so-called primitives were often portrayed in newsreels and print. He wanted to introduce Westerners to the complex societies and customs of these peoples, to show them in what he called a humanistic light. He became fixated on this notion. And so he took a three-week film course, bought a camera, and began making documentary films about these far-flung inhabitants of the earth.
This was his fifth trip north, to the Canadian Arctic. A certain segment of the public was wild for his warm, funny films about the Innu people there. And the big fur company, Northland Trading, was happy to bankroll his efforts. But there was another reason he spent so much time with the Innu: he was trying to pin their stories down to history; he was trying to track down the ruins of a great northern city. An ancient, hidden city—where the natives said a man could live forever. Of late, he was fixated on it. He spoke to Set constantly about it, his place of safety, his surety. His chance at real immortality. We can leap out of these lives when we find my city, he told Set.
There couldn’t possibly be a city here, Set said. Who would build it?
Cedric shook his head. The elders of the tribe speak of a place called Ipiutak, somewhere on the north coast. They say the people who built it abandoned it long ago.
The coast was a barren tundra. No trees, no rocks, just frozen ground and sea. Set asked, What would they build it with?
Cedric smiled. Earth and whalebone, he said. The natives say these people built an entire city in the ground, and stretched hides over the bones of whales for roofs. You see why it will be so difficult to find—an ancient city, buried in the frozen earth. But I will find it. I feel it, boy.
Set was not sure how he felt about the Arctic. He had longed to have Adventures, to see something of the world, but here he felt removed entirely from it. He was always cold and they were always on the move and the dogs smelled bad and the humans worse and the food was dreadful and unchanging, and, finally, he did not care for the company. His brother was traveling with a small film crew and a few very rough men from the fur company. They seemed, from what Set could tell, to think Cedric the greatest fool and the greatest genius all at once.
Once they were in the Innu village in Labrador, the fur men settled down to hard drinking, and complained about the slow pace of Cedric’s work. They refused to help with the camera or the lighting equipment, and Cedric instead trained the natives as his assistants. Set liked the natives much better than the fur men—they taught him how to kill and skin a seal and how to start a fire and how to build an igloo properly. They seemed strong and self-reliant and not at all in need of saving, despite what the church ladies at home said.
His friend Agloolik, a boy about his age, taught him how to fish through the ice. They sat companionably around the ice hole, as Set fidgeted and Agloolik laughed at his impatience. Agloolik asked Set what his name meant, and Cedric interjected: nothing. The boy’s name means nothing. Set looked at Cedric but did not contradict him – he wouldn’t have dared.
The Innu looked disappointed; his name, he said, was the name of a spirit that lived under the ice. The spirit helped men to fish and hunt, and—he slapped Set on the back—so wasn’t it good he was helping his friend to catch fish? Set laughed, and teased that they didn’t seem to be catching much of anything just yet. Agloolik put a little fish down Set’s parka front and rolled around, crying with laughter, as Set jumped and scrabbled and shouted that he would be tickled to death.
The fur men offered Set whiskey and roared when he choked on the burn it left behind—though he did enjoy the way it warmed him from the inside, like a little candle. Pru was dead set against “the drink,” which she warned had destroyed many a man. After that first sip, young man though he was, Set waited that night with dread for the signs of destruction to begin. He wasn’t sure if his toes would drop off, or his face burst into pustules, or his insides collapse like a tent in the wind.
Cedric saw him worrying and slapped him hard on the back. Set’s hood fell over his face and the world went dark. Oh no, he thought for just a moment. It’s beginning already. Blindness by drink. Then Cedric pushed back the hood and handed his small brother a mug of hot tea. Scents of bergamot and lemon improbably mingled with the smell of seal flesh and fish inside the igloo. Did I ever tell you, asked Cedric, about how I filmed the pack ice on the Intrepid?
Set shook his head, no, even though Cedric had told the story many, many times. He liked to hear Cedric tell it.
We made a little wooden seat, said Cedric, and we tied it below the jib boom. And there I hung, furiously filming the ship as we rammed that ice. We’d ram it once, just enough to put a wedge in it, to weaken it. Then we’d fire engines and drive full speed into that wedge.
And then what, asked Set, because it was his job to ask.
And then, said Cedric, then we’d break that ice apart with a great, groaning crash, boy. You’d never believe the beauty of it, and me hanging on for dear life with that rope around my waist, cranking my camera like anything. We were leaving traces, pushing through what nature left for us to conquer. That’s what civilizations do, what they’ve always done. They leave traces behind. Even just a reel of film, you see?
And Set did see, because it was always that way when he and his brother traveled to new lands. We leave ourselves behind in the places we’ve been, thought Set, and we take them with us to the places we’re going. We’re always making and unmaking the world.
Amber Sparks is the author of the short story collection May We Shed These Human Bodies, and the co-author, with Robert Kloss and illustrator Matt Kish, of the hybrid novella The Desert Places. You can find her on Twitter @ambernoelle or here, too: www.ambernoellesparks.com