two tales of the ones who came back
Now, with the sharpest teeth of winter crunching through my bones, I want stories of winters even worse. With wind-chill at 20 degrees below zero and a lace of frost trimming my hood, I listen for survivors’ tales. The holes in my coat pockets grow larger each winter, as I try to fit more stories that will keep my hands warm on long walks in the snow. Each story is different: sagas from the land of the Aurora Borealis, Shackleton’s Antarctica expedition, a memory of the sound ice makes. But one character is always the same: winter, that ferocious howling beast, that exquisite moonlit beauty, that beguiling peril that will vanish one day in April. Winter is the agony and the awe, the danger and the delight; winter is here.
Winter is here. And it is in winter that the very best stories are lived and told. These are the tales of the revenants, the ones who came back, the ones who climbed right out of the jaws of winter. A fur trapper in Montana, 1823, whose story is told in Alejandro Iñárritu’s 2015 film The Revenant. A Brown astrophysics student in New Hampshire, 2016, whose story was told to me in our living room. Left for dead by his companions after a bear mauling, the trapper battles his way through a winter wasteland, surviving off of his smoldering lust for revenge. Left without directions or even the moon to guide them, the astrophysicist and her two companions climb their way up an icy ski slope, hunting for the cabin where the rest of their wilderness retreat cohort has already cozied in for the night. The stories of these revenants intertwine across the gap of centuries, for winter is the same ravening, ravishing creature in both.
In the wilds of Montana or the mountains of New Hampshire, the sky can seem so wide, the world so large. But on a ferocious winter’s night, when you’ve already felt frost’s bite, the world narrows to the ring of light around your campfire, or the bright circle sketched by your headlamp. There are no walls in the fur trapper’s young Montana, and the astrophysicist still hasn’t found the door to the cabin, yet these stories exist in spaces tightly confined by the cold and dark. Winter will not give them an easy escape. Once the astrophysicist is halfway up the viciously steep slope, the only way forward is farther up, following the light of her headlamp as it cuts a tiny path through the colossal dark. Once the trapper rolls off his stretcher in the lonely woods, the only way forward is to live for revenge.
Sound becomes the way in which these worlds are explored: the sound of the trapper’s breath fighting from an unfilled grave, the voice of a mother grizzly (when the trapper nears her cubs, she doesn’t say “grr”—it sounds more like “no!”), the crusty crunch of snow under the astrophysicist’s boots, silence piling up as she climbs higher and higher up the ski slope without finding the cabin. It’s near midnight and she’s thinking ice picks should have been on the packing list.
She cannot hear birds or any other creatures. Animals know winter better than we do. The night she fights her way up the slope—only by digging her hands into frozen footprints can she haul herself up—is a night too cold for any creature but the tenacious human. Animals teach us about winter, and they teach us about ourselves. Hunting his revenge, the fur trapper fights his way through a world where people are more brutal than nature, and the landscape never lacks for fresh corpses, human and animal, red and steaming. You learn a lot about yourself depending on which deaths hurt you more.
Only the dead sleep in the downy white of a snowdrift, yet when frost feathers the lashes of the young trapper who has laid down there for the last time, nothing could be more beautiful—in life or death.
Until a ray of dawn light curls through a helix of iced lichen. Until the Aurora Borealis unfurls above the sleeping trapper crew. The more horrors the trapper faces on his journey to vengeance, the more beautiful winter becomes. The further the astrophysicist climbs up the slope, fearing more and more that the cabin is buried somewhere in the dark behind her, never to be found in the lengthening night, the more beautiful winter’s stars become. Orion, the hunter. The Big and Little Dippers. The Pleiades, seven sister stars. And Sirius, the brightest star in our sky. Away from the light pollution of her Providence observatory, the stars are so clear that she stops for a moment, lost and cold, just to look at them.
This is winter’s secret. When lips are chapped and bleeding, noses rubbed raw, bones aching with a chill that won’t go away—this is when beauty is felt most keenly, ripping along our exposed nerve endings. This is why we need revenants to bring back winter stories and survivor’s tales, tales full of winter peril and beauty. On the coldest nights, sitting around the living room, the one I want beside me is the astrophysicist who can tell me how she found the cabin by the light leaking from its window and can show me the stars that watched from above. On the longest nights, sitting around the campfire, the one I want beside me is the trapper with the worst scars, the bloodiest hands, and the best winter stories.